I am writing this post via the web, inside of RockMelt, the new browser financed by Netscape co-founder Mark Andreessen and built by some of his old colleagues. For those of you who are not familiar with RockMelt, it is built on the Chromium open source code, just as Google's Chrome is. In fact saying it is built on it does not do it justice. It is Chrome with Facebook and Twitter integrated and some other nifty extensions built in.
According to Mr Andreessen, if you were building a browser from scratch now versus when most of the browsers we use were built, you would do things very differently. I don't disagree with this. But I don't think this is really building a browser from scratch. This is Chrome with some nifty extensions. It reminds me of back when there were custom versions of Netscape. You know, where the N in the top corner that would animate while pages were loading would be replaced by another logo. If you really want to do something radical, really build it from scratch.
But why does that bother me? Well part of it is that they have taken an open source project and built a commercial product from it. That is fine, but shouldn't there be some give back? I wonder why the browser was not open sourced, if it was based on open source code? The RockMelt blog seems to indicate at least some give back to the open source community:
"Rock Solid Foundation Any intro to RockMelt wouldn't be complete without recognizing all the tremendous work that came before us-and which we've built upon. We're based on Chromium, the open source project behind Google's Chrome browser, which in turn is based on WebKit, the open source HTML layout engine used by Apple, as well as a host of other projects from Mozilla and others. These projects, which we contribute to, represent the best browser technology out there. RockMelt wouldn't be possible without these projects, as well as the open APIs, help and support we've received from Facebook, Twitter, and others. We're proud and deeply grateful to be able to build on the shoulders of these giants. Thanks friends!"
So what exactly do they contribute? I tried to find out, but did not get an answer. Too often companies use open source code for their own commercial uses and when pressed about the give back talk about their contributions. At some point though you need to show your actual contributions. It is early still, but if RockMelt does not want to be considered a parasite of the open source Chromium community, they need to show what they have contributed.
Open source aside, what about the browser? Like I said it is Chrome. Then they have to edge bars running vertically on both sides of the browser. The left side is your friends currently on line in Facebook. You can click their tiny picture (so small it is hard to see who it is) to find out their name and if you want chat right there with them. You can organize friends into favorites as well.
On the right edge you can add apps and feeds that you can click on to see. You can see your Facebook feed, your Twitter feed, I have even added the open source sub-net feed. Like the right edge, when you hover over the icon on the edge, an overlay is popped up over your window. For some things its nice to have that quick overlay without opening another tab. For other things, just the overlay does not take the place of a full web page.
The same kind of overlay is used in a web search. You enter your search term in the usual search bar on top and instead of going to a full page, the search results are displayed in the overlay. You can also share a page on Facebook by pressing the share button on top. Again this will bring up an overlay. This overlay view seems to be the special sauce in RockMelt.
Now this is an early beta. Maybe there will be more to come. But right now, I am not sure that RockMelt is not more than a Chrome variant. It seems like what they have is more of some cool features, rather than a whole new browser. The question is will the world accept this as a new browser or will some clever developers take this overlay and social integrations (some already have) and just make them Chrome or Mozilla extensions?
As a commercial non-open source project, what is the revenue model here? From what is there now, I would not put up with extra ads or consider paying for this. Would Facebook buy it because of the tight Facebook integration? What about mobile? Will you have enough screen space on mobile devices to make RockMelt? Maybe. But I am just not sure that what we need right now is another browser. Open source or not.
This story, "RockMelt: Who Needs Yet Another Browser?" was originally published by Network World.