Tuesday, September 29, 2009

RockMelt deja vu

Writing for The New York Times, Miguel Helft leads a fairly skeptical article on Marc Andreessen venture RockMelt with "It has been 15 years since Marc Andreessen developed the Netscape Internet browser that introduced millions of people to the Internet." (for a more nuanced picture, more or less consonant with that shorthand, see the Wikipedia article on Mosaic). Helft goes on to opine that "Mr. Andreessen appears to want a rematch" in the browser wars.

Given the current glut of browsers and that Google itself has made only a small dent in the browser market with Chrome [a rather larger dent now --D.H. May 2015], which is shipping code and not half bad by the way, it's only natural to wonder what Andreessen and company expect to accomplish. I could be wrong, as I certainly have been before, but I would expect to see either

Déjà vu I: The RockMelt team sets out to Do Browsers Right This Time. Browsers have become de facto operating systems, complete with the ability of one rogue script to grind the whole thing to a halt, so it's plausible that a redesign from a clean sheet could do better. Every time I've seen this trick tried, little things like release schedules and compatibility with the messy outside world intervene. This is a particular stumbling block for companies in the placeholder home page stage where the world is still young, clean and pretty.

Not that, say, Opera or Chrome or <your favorite browser that I'm forgetting> haven't had some measure of success, just that it's not so clear what our new protaganists are going to come up with that the dozens before them have missed.

Déjà vu II: From what I can glean from the article, RockMelt is not trying to be a general-purpose browser. Andreessen is also on the board of FaceBook and RockMelt is explicitly aimed at supporting social networking. This has a number of advantages, particularly the relative lack of competition and the chance to build on a successful existing brand.

But do I really want to use a different browser for socializing than for checking the weather? I'm probably not the right person to ask, since my social networking and my web use hardly intersect, but my personal answer would be "no". My guess is that people will either shrug and continue to use their existing browser for everything, or the new browser will offer more and more plug-ins and apps so it can act just like a regular browser. Which brings us back to item I.

Either way, I can't shake the feeling I've seen this movie before. Didn't AOL used to have its own browser or such?

[In the end, they were bought by Yahoo! in 2013, evidently not such a bad outcome for them --D.H. May 2015]

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