The odds are stacked against RockMelt, a new browser designed to serve as a social networking hub, industry analysts said today.
On Monday, Silicon Valley startup RockMelt launched a beta of what it called a "re-imagined" browser that tightly integrates Facebook, other popular social networking services, and a cloud-based service with a traditional Web navigation program.
The move is interesting, said Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC. But RockMelt has a tough row to hoe, he said. "The odds are really stacked against them, because if they do succeed, the big browser makers will just come in and co-opt it by adding features of their own," Hilwa said.
Gartner's Ray Valdes agreed with Hilwa. "Having social features is not enough, given that general-purpose browsers can be extended in a similar fashion," he said, citing the numerous Facebook-centric extensions for Mozilla's Firefox as an example.
Valdes said also that he thought RockMelt was a long shot because it was following in the footsteps of another browser with social networking aspirations.
"Early adopters are the ones who would try out a new browser," Valdes said. "[But] they did that already with Flock, and that browser failed to gain broad traction."
"Now users can choose between some very good general-purpose browsers, so the opportunity has narrowed for a new entrant," he said.
As Valdes said, RockMelt isn't the first browser to focus on the likes of Facebook or Twitter. Flock has worked that side of the browser street for more than five years, to mixed success.
In that time, Flock has collected about 9 million users, said the firm's CEO, Shawn Hardin, who classified 2.5 million of those people as "active" users who have run the browser at least once in the last month.
Flock's active user base pales in comparison with other browsers. Mozilla, for example, claims that its Firefox has over 400 million active users, while earlier this year, said Chrome was being used by more than 70 million.
Firefox is the world's No. 2 browser, while Chrome is ranked No. 3. Both lag far behind Microsoft's Internet Explorer in usage share estimates.
Hardin acknowledged that the bigger browsers could step up their social game. "I certainly expect that the major players will all be looking to serve the [same] social audience," he said.
Flock doesn't even register in the data compiled by Web analytics firms such as Net Applications, said Vince Vizzaccaro, the company's vice president of marketing, since like RockMelt, Flock is actually a customized version of Chromium, the open-source browser project that Google backs. Chromium, which is based on Apple's WebKit engine, is also the foundation for Google's Chrome.
"[RockMelt and Flock] are not broad or universal products," said Hilwa. "They taking the browser, then customizing it to manage your social networking affairs. They're as much a Facebook application as they are a browser."
Valdes went further, wondering if the browser-based strategies of RockMelt and Flock even made sense. "There is a genuine need for a better method of accessing the broad range of social sites, but a browser may not be the best approach," he said. "It requires a big download and also needs to be updated frequently to keep up with the rapid evolution of social sites."
And the difficulty every browser developer has in convincing users to switch is also at play, Hilwa said. Firefox, for instance, has acquired less than a quarter of the browser market in its six years of butting heads with IE.
Even so, Hilwa applauded RockMelt and Flock for pushing the envelope. "I love the fact that there's experimentation taking place in browsers," Hilwa said. "And I do think that there is an opportunity here. This is a transformational era, and social networking is occupying more and more hours of our day."
According to Nielsen's latest statistics, Americans now spend about 23% of their online time on social networking sites and services, up from 16% in 2009. By comparison, games, the second-most-popular activity, account for just 10% of users' online time.
Hardin cited those numbers to argue that the future of browsers like Flock and RockMelt are bright. "Increasingly, social is a fundamental expectation of the modern user, and going forward it will be even more so, not less so," Hardin said. "We don't see it as short-lived phenomenon, but a fundamental shift. It's clear that social is here to stay."
Other browser makers' reaction to the introduction of another rival were mixed. Google, for example, cheered RockMelt for its use of Chromium.
"We launched Chromium as an open source project to help spur innovation in the browser space and we are excited to see other browsers adopting the code base," a Google spokesman said on Monday. "We welcome innovation in browsers that provides richer features for users."
Mozilla, which develops Firefox, was more cautious. "Over the last decade, we've seen many browsers come and go," a Mozilla spokeswoman said. "RockMelt was developed in secret so we haven't had a chance to fully evaluate it, but we'll be interested to see if and how it addresses people's privacy concerns and if it finds a place in the market."
Microsoft declined to comment on RockMelt's debut.
"Any new browser has to offer something really, really compelling," Hilwa said. "RockMelt and Flock have latched onto a large user base, but the question is whether a significant portion of the 500 million Facebook users will think something like that is worth their while."
Or maybe RockMelt is simply hoping to get bought by Facebook, Valdes speculated. "The social Web is hot right now, [and] a social browser serves the purpose of grabbing some attention and interest from early adopters," Valdes said. "If RockMelt can capitalize on that interest with other innovations, they might get enough traction to get acquired by Facebook."