A new Web browser, Rockmelt debuts in limited beta Monday and aims to help you keep tabs on your Facebook friends, your favorite sites, and make your Web searches faster. Backed by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, Rockmelt was first reported on by The New York Times in August 2009. At the time, Rockmelt was supposedly going to be a next-generation Web browser designed to take advantage of new Web applications and services.
A year later, and Rockmelt appears to be nothing more than another social networking-focused browser similar to Flock. Just like Flock, Rockmelt incorporates your social networking activity into browser sidebars so you can stay up-to-date on your friends' activities while you browse other parts of the Web. Unlike Flock, however, Rockmelt features a single sign-on profile tied to your Facebook ID that you can carry with you using any computer running Rockmelt. Both browsers are based on Chromium, Google's open source project that is basically a test ground for Google Chrome.
If you'd like to try out Rockmelt, you can sign up for the limited beta at Rockmelt.com by signing in with your Facebook ID.
I haven't had a chance to get my hands on Rockmelt yet, but here's a look at some of the key features of the world's latest social-focused browser.
All About Facebook
You can use Rockmelt as you would any normal Web browser by just firing it up and surfing the Web. But Rockmelt's real power is unlocked when you login to the browser using your Facebook ID. This allows the browser to display a list of your Facebook friends in a slim sidebar on the left side of the browser window; feeds from your favorite sites in a sidebar on the right; as well as store your browser bookmarks and preferences.
All of this personalized information is saved on Rockmelt's servers so that you can access it by logging into the Rockmelt browser from any computer. Rockmelt does not, however, save your Web searches or browsing history, according to an interview with Rockmelt co-founders Eric Vishria and Tim Howes by blogger Robert Scoble. The company also says that all of your personal data is stored as an encrypted bundle on its servers to keep it private. It's not clear if Rockmelt has the ability to decrypt your data, but the company does say they are not interested in your information for the purposes of ad targeting.
It should be noted that in addition to being an investor in Rockmelt, Andreessen also sits on Facebook's board of directors.
Facebook Friends on the Left
On the left side of your browser window is a thin sidebar that lists the Facebook profile pictures of your "favorite" Facebook friends. It's not clear how Rockmelt determines which people are your favorite Facebook friends or how you can change that setting.
As you hover over each picture in the left sidebar you see a summary of their latest Facebook activity such as whether they have an updated status or how many photos they've uploaded recently. Clicking on the profile photo opens a small pop-up window where you can see their recent Facebook activity at the top along with a chat area on the bottom for instant messaging.
Your own Facebook profile photo sits at the top of the left-hand column and you can click on it to update your Facebook status from there.
Favorite Sites on the Right
On the other side of your browser window is a second sidebar where you can get feeds from your favorite sites including news sources such as The New York Times or CNN. You can also add other social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Rockmelt didn't explain what the differences are between the Facebook updates on the left side and right side of the browser. If I had to guess, however, I would say that including Facebook in your right sidebar shows you updates from your newsfeed, while the left sidebar features select updates from your "favorite" Facebook friends.
As each site is updated, an unread count appears next to the site's icon telling you how many new articles or updates there are. Clicking on a site brings up another pop-up window that shows you a summary of the new stuff you haven't seen. If you'd like to read further, clicking on the link for each article brings it up in the main browser window.
If you put your Twitter account in the right sidebar, you can click on the Twitter icon to send out an update, reply or retweet a message and access any Twitter lists you subscribe to.
Rockmelt also has a share bookmarklet in the browser toolbar to let you quickly share links with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.
Rockmelt features two search boxes: a regular Chrome-style Omnibox and a special Rockmelt search field. Rockmelt's search feature is designed to help you get to your Web results faster, and the company said it wanted to make search as "simple as leafing through a magazine."
Let's say you were searching for information about flu shots, and the top search results were links to the Center for Disease Control, Wikipedia, and a CNN news item followed by four other site links. Rockmelt would display the results just as you would see them in Google in a drop down menu. You would then see a preview of each site in the main browser window as you scrolled through your results in the drop down menu. So you could preview the content from the CDC, Wikipedia, CNN and so on until you find what you're looking for.
If you just want typical Google results then you can use the Omnibox instead of Rockmelt's dedicated search box.
Rockmelt appears to be an interesting take on integrating social features into your Web browsing and the new search feature could be useful. But Rockmelt has a tough road ahead to gain a foothold in an already crowded browser market that includes Apple's Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Flock and many others.
Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) on Twitter.