Katherine Boehret

A Social Web Browser

Believe it or not, there’s a Web browser out there that’s as obsessed with social networking as you are. Maybe more.

I’m talking about RockMelt, the latest attention-grabbing Web browser that continuously displays information from Facebook, Twitter and news feeds on the left and right edges of its browser window. It lets users instantly share Web content with their social networks, or chat with Facebook friends without ever opening the Facebook site. And RockMelt, which was released to the public last month, runs on the same technical underpinnings as the Google Chrome browser, giving it the ability to run any of Google’s 3,700 Web Store apps within the browser.

I got a pre-release version of the RockMelt mobile app for iPhone, now available in the Apple App Store at http://j.mp/g5dCCP, and I have been testing it to see how it fares on the iPhone. (Eric Vishria, RockMelt’s CEO, said the company hopes to bring this app to Google’s Android operating system.) RockMelt is well suited for use on the go, but key elements of the browser are missing in the mobile app.

One of my favorite features of the RockMelt app is that it and the PC Web browser are constantly synchronized. This means any new bookmarks or news feeds I added on either the PC or the iPhone, or any articles marked as View Later—a helpful tool that saves links for accessing at a later time— will be mirrored on both platforms within seconds. So if you mark seven articles as View Later from your desktop PC, then leave the office and stand in line at the post office, you can access those articles from your iPhone.


The RockMelt iPhone app

But the mobile app is missing two key chunks that make this browser so socially comprehensive on the PC: a dynamic search function and friends. The PC version of RockMelt has a search box that automatically includes your Facebook friends in each search and suggests links to Web content in a drop-down screen as you go. The mobile app’s search is limited to a simple Google search box.

On the PC version, the entire left side of the browser window is lined with Facebook friends—a feature RockMelt calls the Friend Edge. Each friend is represented by a thumbnail image of his or her profile photo, and good friends can be starred and sorted into a separate list, helping users quickly see updates or instant-message-chat availability for the people who matter most to them. Hovering the cursor over a thumbnail image displays each person’s latest Facebook activity, and selecting someone’s photo opens a window for Facebook chats, writing on another person’s Facebook wall (Web page) or sending a Facebook message.

On RockMelt’s mobile app, this Friend Edge is missing. Mr. Vishria said that while he doesn’t see chat as a killer addition to mobile, like it is on the desktop, he is still thinking about how to incorporate other aspects of the Friend Edge into mobile.

It’s a cinch to post status updates from RockMelt on the iPhone to Facebook or Twitter, including photos or Web links, which can be automatically shortened. And any website can be bookmarked, marked as View Later, or shared with friends via Facebook or Twitter.

I liked using the Add Feeds button at the bottom of the mobile app. This works as a quick and simple way to automatically retrieve content from certain websites. Feeds can be selected from eight categories of content including Popular, Humor, Sports and Technology. I picked a bunch of feeds, including People.com and the Onion, and each added feed synchronized with the PC version of the browser, showing up there when I next sat down at my computer.

It’s worth mentioning that neither the PC version nor the mobile app is usable unless you have a Facebook account. This is understandable, considering how much Facebook is integrated with the browser, but it alienates a bunch of people who either don’t have a Facebook account or don’t feel comfortable entering their Facebook credentials. A Facebook username and password must be entered when installing RockMelt on any computer or the mobile app, insuring that each version of the browser is synchronizing in the cloud and displaying the same content.

RockMelt’s roots trace back to the Netscape browser founded in the early 1990s. One of RockMelt’s co-founders was at Netscape and it’s backed by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen’s venture-capital group. It was originally introduced as a private beta (read: downloadable by invitation only) in November and became available to the public last month. However, each account still includes six invitations, which users are prompted to send to friends as a means of word-of-mouth promotion.

Those who will really appreciate RockMelt on the PC and on the iPhone are the same people who think of Facebook or Twitter as their main means of digital communication. (Most sharing in this browser is done via social networks, not email.) If you fit that description, RockMelt will be a great tool for integrating social networking into your Web browsing. Just don’t expect too much Facebook friend interaction on the mobile app.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com

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