RockMelt social browser faces tough sell

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

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And the difficulty every browser developer has in convincing users to switch is also at play, Hilwa said. Firefox, for instance, has acquired less than a quarter of the browser market in its six years of butting heads with IE.

Even so, Hilwa applauded RockMelt and Flock for pushing the envelope. "I love the fact that there's experimentation taking place in browsers," Hilwa said. "And I do think that there is an opportunity here. This is a transformational era, and social networking is occupying more and more hours of our day."

According to Nielsen's latest statistics, Americans now spend about 23% of their online time on social networking sites and services, up from 16% in 2009. By comparison, games, the second-most-popular activity, account for just 10% of users' online time.

Hardin cited those numbers to argue that the future of browsers like Flock and RockMelt are bright. "Increasingly, social is a fundamental expectation of the modern user, and going forward it will be even more so, not less so," Hardin said. "We don't see it as short-lived phenomenon, but a fundamental shift. It's clear that social is here to stay."

Other browser makers' reaction to the introduction of another rival were mixed. Google, for example, cheered RockMelt for its use of Chromium.

"We launched Chromium as an open source project to help spur innovation in the browser space and we are excited to see other browsers adopting the code base," a Google spokesman said on Monday. "We welcome innovation in browsers that provides richer features for users."

Mozilla, which develops Firefox, was more cautious. "Over the last decade, we've seen many browsers come and go," a Mozilla spokeswoman said. "RockMelt was developed in secret so we haven't had a chance to fully evaluate it, but we'll be interested to see if and how it addresses people's privacy concerns and if it finds a place in the market."

Microsoft declined to comment on RockMelt's debut.

"Any new browser has to offer something really, really compelling," Hilwa said. "RockMelt and Flock have latched onto a large user base, but the question is whether a significant portion of the 500 million Facebook users will think something like that is worth their while."

Or maybe RockMelt is simply hoping to get bought by Facebook, Valdes speculated. "The social Web is hot right now, [and] a social browser serves the purpose of grabbing some attention and interest from early adopters," Valdes said. "If RockMelt can capitalize on that interest with other innovations, they might get enough traction to get acquired by Facebook."

Users can apply for a RockMelt account at the company's Web site. The Flock browser, meanwhile, can be downloaded from Flock's site.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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