RockMelt social browser faces tough sell

Even if RockMelt succeeds, mainstream browsers can easily co-opt its features, say experts

The odds are stacked against RockMelt, a new browser designed to serve as a social networking hub, industry analysts said today.

On Monday, Silicon Valley startup RockMelt launched a beta of what it called a "re-imagined" browser that tightly integrates Facebook, other popular social networking services, and a cloud-based service with a traditional Web navigation program.

The move is interesting, said Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC. But RockMelt has a tough row to hoe, he said. "The odds are really stacked against them, because if they do succeed, the big browser makers will just come in and co-opt it by adding features of their own," Hilwa said.

Gartner's Ray Valdes agreed with Hilwa. "Having social features is not enough, given that general-purpose browsers can be extended in a similar fashion," he said, citing the numerous Facebook-centric extensions for Mozilla's Firefox as an example.

Valdes said also that he thought RockMelt was a long shot because it was following in the footsteps of another browser with social networking aspirations.

"Early adopters are the ones who would try out a new browser," Valdes said. "[But] they did that already with Flock, and that browser failed to gain broad traction."

"Now users can choose between some very good general-purpose browsers, so the opportunity has narrowed for a new entrant," he said.

As Valdes said, RockMelt isn't the first browser to focus on the likes of Facebook or Twitter. Flock has worked that side of the browser street for more than five years, to mixed success.

In that time, Flock has collected about 9 million users, said the firm's CEO, Shawn Hardin, who classified 2.5 million of those people as "active" users who have run the browser at least once in the last month.

Flock's active user base pales in comparison with other browsers. Mozilla, for example, claims that its Firefox has over 400 million active users, while earlier this year, Google said Chrome was being used by more than 70 million.

Firefox is the world's No. 2 browser, while Chrome is ranked No. 3. Both lag far behind Microsoft's Internet Explorer in usage share estimates.

Hardin acknowledged that the bigger browsers could step up their social game. "I certainly expect that the major players will all be looking to serve the [same] social audience," he said.

Flock doesn't even register in the data compiled by Web analytics firms such as Net Applications, said Vince Vizzaccaro, the company's vice president of marketing, since like RockMelt, Flock is actually a customized version of Chromium, the open-source browser project that Google backs. Chromium, which is based on Apple's WebKit engine, is also the foundation for Google's Chrome.

"[RockMelt and Flock] are not broad or universal products," said Hilwa. "They taking the browser, then customizing it to manage your social networking affairs. They're as much a Facebook application as they are a browser."

Valdes went further, wondering if the browser-based strategies of RockMelt and Flock even made sense. "There is a genuine need for a better method of accessing the broad range of social sites, but a browser may not be the best approach," he said. "It requires a big download and also needs to be updated frequently to keep up with the rapid evolution of social sites."

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