Mike Isaac

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RockMelt Dives Into Mobile Browsing — iPad First

After two years of having a desktop-centric product, the RockMelt browser is coming to mobile — and it’s diving in iPad-first.

It’s nothing like your grandpa’s Safari. RockMelt for iPad caters to the shifting attitudes we have in the way we experience content on tablets. The result is an attractive mish-mash of an interface design that borrows heavily from Facebook’s Timeline, Pinterest’s tiles and Twitter’s ever-flowing stream.

As CEO Eric Vishria puts it: “It is unquestionably a really different beast. And that is a good thing.”

Philosophically, RockMelt as a product builds on top of the two predominant schools of thought in how we browse the Web today. Google champions intent-based search — type in a word, receive endless pages of links. Social surfing, the other school, posits that our friends are better referrers of new content than any algorithm. While still nascent, the meteoric rise of Facebook and Twitter, and their ability to deliver massive traffic around the Web, give the theory legs.

RockMelt exists somewhere in the space between the two. First launched in 2010, it’s a browser like Chrome or Firefox but with deeply integrated social features. Navigating the Web, the idea goes, shouldn’t rely on either philosophy entirely, but incorporate the best of both worlds.

As browsing has changed over the past two years, we’ve shifted on other fronts as well. We’re moving from desktops to smartphones. From text to visuals, from the static to the stream.

Confused? Here’s an example: Don’t expect a browser window defined by the blank search bar up top. Open the app and integrate it with your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you’re presented with a never-ending stream of squares and rectangles of different stories, populated by the people you’re connected to. It’s sort of like a portal site, only it is one curated by the folks whose views you (presumably) care about.

The reasoning here: First, the mobile browser market is clogged with competitors. Dolphin, Mozilla, Opera, Safari, Chrome — each one offers similar functionality, comes in a similar layout, all battling for the same slice of the mobile browser marketshare. RockMelt’s drastically different appearance, according to co-founder (and ex-Netscape veep) Tim Howes, makes it stand out among its contemporaries.

Second, consider the medium. We don’t use tablets in the same manner as we do our desktops. IPads are seen primarily as consumption-first devices, amenable to displaying products and content in easily swipe-able, fast-scrolling ways. There’s a reason sites like Fab.com and The Fancy have such high rates of purchasing through tablets.

So RockMelt for iPad takes our habit and works with it, presenting stories in pop-out panes that make content look more attractive.

“The thing about the Web is that it’s vast,” Vishria told me. “But it’s dirty.” RockMelt tries to solve the problem, as Vishria puts it, of combining the expansive nature of the Web with the beauty and richness of an app. Hence the new presentation.

Third, there’s the social component. Along with Facebook and Twitter integration, RockMelt builds another social layer into the browser itself. You can follow others who use the application, and the app will suggest more stories to you based on what they’re sharing. Moreover, you’re able to comment, share and add an array of “Like”-type emotions to each article (sort of like Buzzfeed’s “LOL” or “WTF” subcategories). The idea here is, not only will content circulate externally via Facebook and Twitter sharing, but internally via RockMelt’s additional social layer.

I’ve played with the application for the past two weeks, using it both with and without some of the social components. I’ll say this: It is attractive. It is fast. And to be frank, the initial feeling was jarring. When I imagine using a browser, I expect to experience the Web in a certain way, navigating my usual haunts via search bar, going to Facebook or Twitter only on occasion.

With RockMelt’s app, I feel like I’m browsing shelves in a store. I haven’t decided quite yet if that’s a good thing or bad thing.

Is this something I could come back to repeatedly? Is this too much of a shock to the system that I’m used to, the standby of the white search bar, the blank page?

Vishria believes that the process of discovery — the neat, pretty way content is wrapped up in little packages and presented to the user — will be what draws us in. Browsing and exploration will be what keeps us there. And to be fair, the search bar is still there — it’s just not the focal point.

Obviously the jury’s out on this — at least until the app has been in the wild for a few months or so.

To get a better sense of the product, check out RockMelt’s commercial below (complete with Honey Badger commentary).

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus