Browsers like RockMelt and Flock are Harmful to the Web
I recently received a beta invite for the new RockMelt Web browser, which is funded by Andreessen Horowitz, of Marc Andreessen/Netscape fame. Naturally I was curious to see what they are working on, Andreessen knowing a thing or two about the browser market, having been instrumental in the birth of the segment in the early nineties.
However, another part of me remained skeptical, having tried out the Flock browser, which appears to be a similar idea but based around Mozilla/Gecko rather than Chrome/Webkit as RockMelt is.
Both RockMelt and Flock have as a central idea that the applications and social media sites that you frequent should be the center of your browsing experience. To that end they include built-in clients for services such as Twitter and Facebook. I didn’t realize how big of a shift this was until I tried out RockMelt, which required me to log into Facebook before it would even start up. Somehow this strikes me as a huge step backward and is reminiscent of my experience with Google Chrome OS, which required a Gmail account to even log into the operating system.
Why is this bad? The success of the early Web was predicated on universality and transparent interfaces. With services such as Facebook and Twitter, data is walled off and presented only through a Web user interface provided by the companies that publish the service. Instead of having the services move toward making themselves more interoperable with the Web, we have browsers that are catering to the individual whims of the social networks by building special-purpose clients right into the browser.
This screams to me the need for an way for the Web itself to express concepts like social relationships, status and presence rather than scrambling to support each and every social networking site in our browsers.
One alternative that could bridge the gap between where we are now and future Web support for social networking features would be something like what GroupDock is doing. GroupDock is a commercial product that a friend and fellow entrepreneur Luc Castera is working on, but the idea is to allow the delivery of small apps that are built on OpenSocial and Sproutcore. If we twist this idea around slightly and allow these small apps to be more integrated into the browser, we might have a perfect blend between accommodating service-specific apps while not treating the browser as a glorified thick client for specific services.