What’s in it for RockMelt?

November 8, 2010, 7:58 PM UTC

The polished browser has gotten a lot of press for its social media integration and more efficient search features. Even more interesting though, is its untapped potential.

In a market that’s been dominated by Mozilla, Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) for years, it’s counterintuitive, and that’s being kind, for a new start-up to emerge with, of all things, a new browser.

But that’s what the 30-man team of RockMelt did today when it emerged from stealth mode and released a beta for public consumption. Developed by former OpsWare execs Tim Howes and Eric Vishria, staffed with ex-Apple, Facebook and IDEO employees, and backed by, among others, Intuit founder Bill Campbell and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen to the tune of $10 million, RockMelt was built atop Google’s Chrome platform. The secret sauce is that it integrates users’ social media and media consumption into two slim bars on either side of the main browser window: Facebook feeds organized by top friends on the left side, and Twitter and top blogs on the right. Information is constantly pulled from the various channels and updated in near real-time. Search results are also pre-fetched, pre-rendered and presented in what the developers call a “floating window” that hovers below the search bar.

It’s a clean, sleek solution that should appeal to heavy social media users who find themselves constantly switching between browser tabs and windows to check Facebook, Twitter, and blog updates.

“It’s the first real friend management tool that I’ve seen that’s integrated into a place where I live all the time, which is my browser,” says Altimeter founder and analyst Charlene Li, who finds RockMelt’s solution polished and accessible.

While having high-profile staffers and backers certainly helps the browser as far as publicity goes — the start-up all but exploded into the media over the weekend — the bigger question remains how the company plans to turn a profit in an extremely competitive market.

According to Howes and Vishria, the goal is to eventually adopt the revenue model companies like Apple and Mozilla follow with Safari and Firefox, respectively — by making deals with search engine companies.

When making deals, browsers usually agree upon whether a search engine appears in a search engine field (think Firefox and Google) and/or whether it then becomes the default search provider (ie. Safari and Google). When users search with an engine that has a deal in place, the browser company gets a cut of that revenue which can be somewhere between $1 to a couple dollars per user per year. For Firefox, its search deal with Google makes up 90% of its revenue, which should change since Microsoft Bing became a search bar alternative in Firefox 4, available this month.

For now, RockMelt’s default search engine is Google, and no deal is set with the giant Internet company for such placement, but Howes and Vishria imply that situation will change somewhere down the line. They mention plans to integrate (and capitalize from) commerce and gaming possibilities, which they refrain from discussing in detail at this time.

Li however predicts much grander things for RockMelt’s potential revenue stream. By requiring all RockMelt users to log-in with their social media information from the get-go, they’re essentially providing the browser unprecedented access to information, preferences, even friends’ preferences to an extent.

“Because RockMelt integrates the browser and social media into the same place, it actually escapes the boundaries of any one particular site or service whether you’re Bing, Google, CNN, whatever,” she says. “They can have that aggregated knowledge.”

So imagine a more targeted browsing experience with ads better customized to your browsing habits and interactions culled from various social graphs. For advertisers, it’s like the Web 2.0 holy grail.

Howes and Vishria however deny such a possibility, however, stating they currently do not collect user information, activities, and searches.

“The biggest thing the user wants is trust,” says Howes. “The thing that some web sites have gotten into is that people feel they’re being tracked or followed online. So it’s really important not to do that.”

Of course, the same could be said of Facebook at the outset when it was just a humble college-only social network. And as we’ve learned time and time again as social media evolves, the definition of “privacy” has become a shaky, tenuous thing.