A Recipe for Google Chrome Pro

Marc Andreessen broke critical Web browser ground back in 1994, the Dark Dial-Up Ages, with Netscape Navigator, arguably the most influential Web browser (and, in some circles, best technology product) of all time. Navigator delivered previously unheard-of innovations, such as enabling Web pages to load on the fly, piece by piece, instead of making a user stare at a blank screen until every bit on the page had been received.

Fast-forward to November 2010. Andreessen has re-entered the Web browser fray with a new offering called RockMelt. Andreessen has once more started out with a solid open source code base foundation in Google Chrome (Netscape was built on Mosaic). But rather than providing a single pane for enhancing Web-page hopping, RockMelt joins Web browsing with instant sharing and collaboration, via tight integration with Facebook.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Oddly useful alternative browsers offer such advantages as 3-D searching, social networking, easy scriptability, and powerful page manipulation. See "Top 10 specialty browsers you may have missed." ]

The end result is pretty slick: A user who frequently spends time updating his or her Facebook status, sharing links, and chatting with Facebook friends will find a lot to like about RockMelt, which performs those tasks with click-drag-drop simplicity -- and without even having to be on a Facebook page. If you want to go anywhere on the Web and never leave Facebook behind, RockMelt is for you.

For the Facebook agnostic, RockMelt could be just as significant as a sign of what may be still to come: If the Chrome browser could be so cleverly integrated with a website that connects us with our friends, how about integrating it with a website that is central to our work? As I was using RockMelt, I couldn't help thinking how powerfully productive it would be if, instead of Facebook, it were integrated with Google Apps and Docs.

RockMelt follows in the footsteps of the various other specialty browsers such as Flock. RockMelt's UI is almost identical to Chrome's, with the same uncluttered navigation bar and minimal drop-down menus. One difference is a Share button, which you can click to instantly share the Web page you're viewing with your Facebook family. Additionally, there's a search box that simultaneously queries Google and Facebook as you enter text.

But the real innovation is the two sidebars, called Edges, that run vertically down either side of the browser window. The Apps Edge (on the right side of the screen) is for monitoring your favorite websites; the Friends Edge (on the left) provides ever-present access to your Facebook friends.

The Chrome-based RockMelt browser, with the Friends Edge on the left, the Apps Edge on the right, and the Share button up top.

The Chrome-based RockMelt browser, with the Friends Edge on the left, the Apps Edge on the right, and the Share button up top.

Friends Edge: Track your Facebook Friends
When you launch RockMelt, you're prompted to log in to your Facebook account. Upon doing so, the Friends Edge is populated with images of your Facebook contacts. You can choose to see all friends who are logged in to Facebook, or you can have it list your select favorites. Each friend image includes a small circle to indicate whether the contact is active on Facebook, idle, or not logged in (or hidden). A button at the bottom of the Edge opens a window where you can easily see all of your contacts and search who is online.

Hovering over an image lets you read the contact's current Facebook status. Click a friend's image to initiate a chat, send a private Facebook message, or post to the contact's Facebook wall, just as if you were viewing within the social networking site. If you so choose, you can also detach the contact window, which can then be expanded or minimized, for quick access. Effectively, you could have various panes for interacting with multiple contacts at once.

The developers of RockMelt have done a pretty good job in integrating Facebook's lackluster chat features into the browser. For starters, it's prettier. Your side of the conversation appears on the left-hand side of the chat box, with a pale green background. Your contact's responses appear on the right with a pale blue background. This makes it a bit easier to track the flow of the conversation. Additionally, unlike in Facebook where chats are locked to the bottom of the screen, RockMelt lets you detach a chat window -- or windows -- and drag them wherever you'd like.

One other interesting difference: If you send a link to an image via chat, the image will render in the chat window. With Facebook chat, the recipient would have to click the link to view the image in a new tab or browser window. Fundamental limitations of Facebook chat are shared by RockMelt, of course. For instance, you can't transfer a desktop document to a contact by dropping it into the chat window, as you can with more advanced IM tools.

RockMelt, at least when I tested it out, did not support any kind of group chat. You can converse with only one contact in one window at a time. By contrast, Facebook introduced a feature that lets you communicate with all online members of a given Facebook group at once. I'd imagine the RockMelt developers can and will fold that into the browser; they certainly should.

The Friends Edge's tricks don't end there; it also enables quick sharing with contacts. For example, if you find an article or image that you want to share with a friend, you simply click the URL or image and drag it over to a friend's image. You'll be prompted to choose how you want to share: via Facebook message, chat, or on the friend's wall.

RockMelt's Friends Edge means you never browse alone.

RockMelt's Friends Edge means you never browse alone.

Apps Edge: Track your favorite apps and feeds
The Apps Edge, like a souped-up favorites bar, tracks your choice websites and services, be they news sites, blogs, Twitter, or your own Facebook page. Numbers appear in each site icon, letting you know how many new entries have been added to the feed since your previous viewing. Clicking an app icon opens up the RSS view in a detachable window. Here, you can preview and share updates and, if you so choose, click a link to open the page in a new tab.

The caveat to the Apps Edge is that the sites you choose to add must support RSS feeds. You can see when your Facebook page is updated, thanks to the tight integration between the browser and the site. You can even toggle the view so that you see only the latest updates from members of specific contact groups you've created -- say, Best Friends or Co-Workers or Family. You can't, however, add your Gmail or Yahoo Mail account to the sidebar for similarly tracking incoming messages.

I would also like to see the RockMelt developers add a way to track "non-Friend" Facebook pages -- such as for organizations or causes -- in the Apps Edge.

RockMelt's Apps Edge tracks your favorite sites, as long as they provide an RSS feed.

RockMelt's Apps Edge tracks your favorite sites, as long as they provide an RSS feed.

Browsing with Google Apps and Docs?
In hooking up with Facebook, RockMelt is geared more toward fun than productivity. But the mashup of browser and website tickles the imagination of what might be. If a company -- say, Google -- were to crank out a version of Chrome that was just as tightly integrated with Google Apps and Docs, then using the browser as your "office suite" becomes that much simpler.

For example, your work Google contacts would be just a click away down the left-hand side of your screen. You could hover over them to see what App they were using or what Doc they were accessing. With a click, you could initiate a chat, no matter which app you happened to have open on your screen.

Down to your right, in addition to (or in place of) the aforementioned RSS feeds, you could have icons representing the Google Apps you use, such as Gmail, Calendar, Spreadsheets, and the like. Given that Google has just integrated dozens of new apps to Google Apps, the ability to hop among them quickly becomes all the more important.

Hovering over the Gmail icon would let you see your messages. Hover over Calendar for a quick look at what's on your agenda. Hover over the Spreadsheets, Documents, or Presentation icon to see the status of any of your files -- that is, who is accessing them or when they were last edited.

Also consider the implications of injecting RockMelt's drag-and-drop sharing style into this sort of Google App-optimized browser. Want to share a spreadsheet with a contact? Drag and drop it onto their image on the left. Want to turn an email into a Google Doc or perhaps a Word doc? Drag the email to the Documents icon. Want to preview a PDF or add it to your library? Drag and drop. Send a desktop file to a contact? Drag and drop it on their image, then choose whether you want to send it via email or over chat.

Conceivably, Google's forthcoming Chrome OS will enable the sort of heightened integration between browser and Google Apps, given that the company has telegraphed plans to eliminate the familiar icon-riddled desktop motif entirely. If not, though, RockMelt could serve as a promising model for another developer out there looking to groom a version of Chome for productivity use instead of social interaction.

RockMelt is free but, for now, requires an invitation to get a copy. You can request one via the RockMelt website or from a friend who already has it installed.

Also on InfoWorld:

The best Web browser: Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, or Safari?
Find out which of the leading browsers is the perfect balance of features, speed, innovation, and flexibility for you
First look: Internet Explorer 9 beta makes waves
Microsoft's next browser closes in on Chrome and Firefox with improvements in graphics rendering, HTML5 compatibility, security, and JavaScript performance
First look: Firefox 4 Beta 1
Sure, Firefox 4's new Chrome-like UI is nice, but the real story is under the hood

This story, "A recipe for Google Chrome Pro," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in Web browsers and applications at InfoWorld.com.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter