By Dustin Sklavos
A conundrum, for starters. If you read my review of Flock, you're going to find RockMelt to be a bit of d?j? vu. Essentially, RockMelt is built off of the same Chromium open source project Google pioneered (and currently dominates with their Chrome browser) with social networking and RSS aggregators built into the browser framework. This isn't an outwardly bad idea; social networking and RSS are two of the biggest uses of the internet today (next to Netflix's staggering bandwidth share), so wedging them snugly into the browser itself instead of just an open tab isn't a bad idea.
Unfortunately, if you read the Flock review, you already know how this story ends.
After you get your invite, you're given three invites that you can hand out to your other friends. Installation is clean and obvious: RockMelt is at its heart a Facebook client with a Chromium chaser, so when you start the installer it immediately asks for your Facebook login and password.
Credit where credit is due: this setup is even simpler than the already easy-to-get-into Flock. You run the installer, log in to Facebook, and it's pretty much good to go. If you already have Google Chrome installed, RockMelt will automatically import your bookmarks from there and even suggest RSS feeds to aggregate from your browsing history.
RockMelt is, as mentioned, all about Facebook. If offers a clean interface with your Facebook contacts running down the left side of the window, RSS feeds running down the right side, and a search bar next to the address bar. Between the two is a "share" button similar to the one in Flock. Facebook chat is integrated right into the browser, a useful feature at least. And when you first open RockMelt, there's a splash page that gives you a little information about the browser itself. Everything works and works fairly well.
If I had one major problem with RockMelt, it's that it's really obvious they just took Chrome and grafted features into it. The interface is clean and easy to use, but the two browsers look nigh identical and with a couple of plug-ins on Chrome there's really no reason you couldn't get nearly the same functionality out of it. What Flock brought to the table that RockMelt lacks is the ability to store bookmarks and browsing sessions in the cloud, though it's essentially a trade-off because RockMelt only asks for accounts you already have.
With that negativity out of the way, though, RockMelt does justify itself a bit better than Flock does. The Facebook integration isn't a major improvement on how Flock does it, but integrating Facebook chat is a big plus. I personally use Trillian for instant messaging because the idea of doing any kind of serious chatting in a web browser makes me physically ill. It's something that I think requires a more dedicated interface than what a browser can provide (at this time), though the pop out windows in RockMelt go a long way toward keeping me from leaving Facebook chat disabled.
The news aggregator on the right side of the window is also pretty swanky. I added The Onion's A.V. Club (my ultimate goal as a writer), and the news feed that comes up is detailed without being overpowering. Like everything else in RockMelt, the interface is clean, crisp, and easy to read. Of course, that's what you get when you're building off of Chromium. You can add several feeds and again, RockMelt suggests them based on your bookmarks and browsing history, and of course everyone's favorite - Twitter -- is also supported.
It's all clean, easy to use, and well-integrated given its intended purpose. So what's the problem?
Well, for starters, while Flock had a whole two extensions to its name, RockMelt doesn't have any at all. Honestly, for the integration that RockMelt offers, this strikes me as a fatal flaw. The browser is still invite-only, but it doesn't look like the infrastructure is even in place for extensions. That means that you have to give up ad blockers, download managers, script blockers, and everything else to get the Facebook and news feed fixes that probably could've been handled by a plug-in for Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. When Internet Explorer and Opera are supporting extensions and your shiny new browser is just about social networking, you're behind the times and unfortunately this isn't an industry that taps its feet and waits for you to catch up.
With RockMelt we're back to some of the same questions we had with Flock, the chief one being "is this progress?" I'm not really sure. At least here I can unequivocally say that the social networking integration is worlds better than Flock's, and that there are at least some very useful features that RockMelt leverages. The news feed really is well done, and the Facebook handling is certainly better than Flock.
The problem is that it ultimately still feels an awful lot like Google Chrome with some extra stuff tacked on. The invite-only system right now really doesn't do them any favors either, because it artificially limits exposure in a way that I think is damaging. RockMelt needs a community to thrive; making it difficult to get only makes it harder to build and grow that community. Not having any extension support is probably a killing blow.
The biggest shame of all of this is that I think RockMelt is worth checking out and at least trying, but that damn invite-only system makes it difficult for you to do that. Who wants to "like" something they've never tried on Facebook and then wait a week just to see if they actually will like it? If you can get an invite and the features sound useful to you, I'd encourage you to try RockMelt. I just have a hard time seeing how it fits into a big picture that includes more feature-rich browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Internet Explorer.
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