RockMelt goes all in with its new iPad browser, but will users adapt fast enough?

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 10, 2012

From The News Desk

Eric Vishria is an entrepreneurs' entrepreneur. Honed in the Ben Horowitz school of management at Opsware-- he knows the true hell and elation that is building a company. During a low moment at his company, RockMelt, he gave a rousing speech and sported an army jacket around the office to emphasize the whole wartime CEO bit.

When interviewing a kid who's only worked at Facebook during its highly successful years, he tells him he doesn't really know what it's like to work at a startup. He hasn't lived the struggle. Indeed, Vishria has a point. Once a movie has been made about your company, it's really no longer "a startup."

You get the sense talking to him that no matter how bad things got at one of his companies he'd never be the guy who quits. As Horowitz says, "Being a founder CEO is the one job you can't quit... unless you're a punk." Vishria is definitely not a punk.

And so when Vishria tells me that RockMelt has gone all-in during a company-wide, eight-month effort to build the latest version of its browser, I don't doubt his intensity. There is no backup plan, he says.

And I don't necessarily doubt the vision either. It's not mobile first; it's iPad first. "We're undergoing a shift in navigation that's as fundamental as the shift from the command like to the Graphical User Interface," he says. (His biggest backer-- Marc Andreessen-- knows a thing or two about that.) That shift is from typing words to visually swiping and pinching and pulling. "You still enter text in the browser and tell it where you want to go," Vishria says. "That hasn't changed since Marc and Mosiac and it's even worse on mobile."

True that.

Vishria further argues that this shift will make the Web more of a central part of our lives and accessible to far more people. And you only have to show a one-year old an iPad to see that that's also probably true. "It's not just kids, it's a combo of the developing world, non-technical people, and middle-aged women," he says.

And in an email to its content partners-- of which PandoDaily is one of many-- they say, "Hopefully this will be first day of a new business model for the content industry as a whole." Who doesn't want that?

Clearly someone needs to rethink the browser on mobile, the question is whether RockMelt has rethought it too much. At one point, I had to ask Vishria if RockMelt really was primarily a browser anymore. Indeed when I was demoing it, I kept forgetting to browse the Web, because there's so much to do without leaving. It's almost a hearkening back to the days of the Yahoo portal where you could leave if you want, but you don't really have to.

Instead of creating its own content like a directory, RockMelt sucks in your Twitter and Facebook feeds, asks you to follow blogs and brands you like to read, and pushes relevant content to you in a UI that resembles the love-child of Pinterest and Flipboard.

Decide you want to learn more about tech news and the display reorders and shows you headlines from the biggest tech publications. Say you want to learn more about nesting and you get the same gorgeous transition animation and a page with decor and design tips. A clever promo video that stars the guy from the Honey Badger videos calls it "a more pretty Internet or something." Indeed, it is pretty.

The genesis of the product came from watching how RockMelt's existing users devoured its customizable side bars. Those "edges"-- which contained friends, social feeds, and favorite sites-- were so sticky that Rockmelt discovered an average user was in the browser seven hours and fifteen minutes a day. They were opening apps out of the browser edge some 27 times a day.

That's hardly getting in, typing what you want and getting out. You could argue they haven't been thinking of RockMelt as a browser for quite a while. In the new version, RockMelt has simply brought those edges all front and center. "This is your Internet," Vishria says. "It's the portion of the Internet that is relevant to you." In that sense, it's the closest anyone may have come to a truly personalized, social browser.

But. All that theory and gorgeous animation aside, does the new RockMelt really solve a problem now?

I'm not so sure. The big issue is where we are in that shift to visual navigation and whether a browser should be betting everything on it now. Because right now, RockMelt's new browser is anything but inclusive. You have to not only have an iPad but the latest version and have iOS 6. And while many people feel tablets are the future, content companies have struggled to build thriving companies on them. Only a quarter of the readers of Paul Carr's NSFWCORP -- one of several content companies designed to be all about the tablet-- actually read its content on the iPad. The Daily has been a high-priced flop.

As I was playing with it-- whooshing through content and enjoying the gorgeous animation-- I kept thinking "This would be amazing if I actually did my reading on an iPad!" If you do, download the new RockMelt now. But I don't. If RockMelt were available on the iPhone I'd probably use it more regularly, if for no other reason than I hate Safari and would love to support a new alternative. I may be alone, but I consume way more media and spend way more time browsing on the iPhone, because it's always with me. My iPad is mostly for entertaining me when I travel, showing my one-year-old Yo Gabba Gabba videos, and frankly demoing products like RockMelt that I plan on writing about.

The other problem is RockMelt didn't offer a compelling enough version of "my Internet" in practice. Or put another way, while the categories I regularly follow were too similar to the version of my Internet I already have elsewhere -- and so, why do I need RockMelt's help? -- the categories I don't normally follow weren't tailored enough to my tastes to provide useful recommendations.

To wit: When I clicked Tech News I pretty much got stuff that was already in my Twitter or RSS feeds, only it was a way prettier way to sort through it. And when I clicked Business News I got reports about Billy Bob Thornton putting his house up for sale, Derek Jeter selling his penthouse for $15.5 million  and a comparison between Meryl Streep and Sarah Silverman. Not exactly what I consider business news.

Granted, I used a beta version for only a few hours. I have no doubt it'll get better at this.

(My other take-away which had little to do with RockMelt: Quartz has studied at the Business Insider school of headlines. Witness: "Did the Twitter of China just convince the community party to reform its labor camps?" and "Photo series of wealthy Chinese kids and their expensive cameras goes viral." I had to do a double take on the source more than a few times.)

Categories that I don't regularly follow like fashion and "nesting" yielded more discovery, but again, I don't normally follow these categories for a reason, so I'm not sure how often I'd frequent them. I could see myself using RockMelt now the way I devour a fashion magazine on rare coveted downtime that doesn't have to be productive. But sadly, that's not something I do everyday or even every week.

Ultimately, it's clear RockMelt is on to something big here. Vishria is right in what we need from a browser and where navigation is going. But it'll take a long road full of iteration and clever marketing to prove why it needs to be that app you click on any time you want to read content, connect with friends or even browse the Web.

So the question over the future of RockMelt's browser really boils down to dedication and staying power, and that brings me back to how I opened this post. If anyone has it it's Vishrai. And with $40 million from a murderer's row of investors-- including Andreessen Horowitz, Accel Partners, Khosla Ventures, First Round Capital and Bill Campbell, Ron Conway and Diane Greene-- it has the wherewithal to see that gritty determination through.

(All that, plus he needs to launch an iPhone version soon.)

(Disclosure: Marc Andreessen, Accel Partners, First Round's Josh Kopelman and Ron Conway are investors in PandoDaily.)