Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, is reportedly backing a startup called RockMelt that is throwing its hat into the increasingly crowded ring of the browser wars. Little is known about RockMelt at this point aside from rumor and innuendo. The idea, supposedly, is to build a new browser from the ground up rather than just re-engineering the existing browser engine model. It sounds like a daunting undertaking which leads me to wonder- why? If RockMelt ends up being the greatest web browser ever built and is victorious in the browser market share war, what exactly does it win?
Microsoft has had its issues with security and with complying with Web and Internet standards with Internet Explorer. These issues have led many to revolt and seek alternative web browsers. Firefox, the phoenix from Netscape's ashes has emerged as the strongest challenger. It has steadily eaten away at Internet Explorer's market share and recently surpassed 1 billion total downloads. There are also other browsers such as Opera, Apple's Safari, and Google's Chrome crowding the mainstream browser market.
What do they all have in common? Well, they actually have much in common, but one of the most glaring similarities is that they're all free. Each has its pros and cons and they play technological leap frog with each other in terms of developing new features, but at the core a browser is a browser. Aside from picking the bells and whistles you prefer and developing a comfort level with the UI (user interface) and conventions of one browser over another, it really just doesn't matter which browser you use.
It's not like XM Radio vs. Sirius Radio where choosing one or the other defines what stations you receive. It's not like the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray battle, where selecting one technology over another determined which movies you might be able to rent or purchase. It's not like the operating system battle where the decision to go with Windows, or Linux, or Mac OS X has a drastic effect on the tools and applications you can use. No matter what browser you choose you can still visit all of the web sites just fine.
Why would a startup want to invest time and money building a new browser to give away for free? Andreessen may have some pent-up hostility toward the current market leader, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. When Andreessen launched Netscape it was the only kid on the block. The software had the market to itself and probably a strategy to begin monetizing the product and generating income at some point. Then Microsoft created Internet Explorer and embedded it with the Windows operating system which catapulted it to the top of the browser charts relatively quickly. Perhaps Andreessen is happy to simply back anything that can chip away at Internet Explorer's market share?
There are reports that RockMelt will be optimized for or integrated with Facebook in some way, making it into a social networking browser. There is already a niche browser called Flock which incorporates aspects of social networking. The ability to integrate social networking alone does not seem to be a compelling reason to invest in building a web browser or a justification for users to make the switch to it. I will be interested to take a look at RockMelt when an actual product becomes available, but even if RockMelt can achieve success in the browser market, I think it will find that winning a war to give away the most free software is a hollow victory.
Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.