Rockmelt finally brings its deconstructed browser to the device I wanted it on back in October: My iPhone

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 20, 2012

From The News Desk

Finally. Rockmelt is doing what I wished it'd done back in October: Putting its gorgeous, content-filled browser on the iPhone.

I realize it's only been a few months but: WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?

When I wrote about Rockmelt's new browser built strictly for the iPad- a content-rich experience that looks like the lovechild of Pinterest and Flipboard-- I worried that while I liked it, I wouldn't regularly use it. Why? Because it was only on the iPad.

And as much as every content creator or aggregator wants to believe everyone is reading only on tablets, it's simply not true. The two main uses for my iPad are entertainment when I travel or entertaining my kid during dinner time. As such, it is usually in my travel bag or my kitchen next to the highchair. My phone on the other hand is with me all the time, and I read the bulk of my news in rare moments of downtime.

But something funny happened a few weeks ago: I actually started taking my iPad to bed with me so I could flip through Rockmelt before bed and first thing in the morning. The reason was pretty simple: I was finding stories on Rockmelt I wasn't finding elsewhere and that was giving me more story ideas. That's the app developer's key to my over-apped heart: I'll take a scorpion to bed with me every night if it helps me do my job better.

That experience may sound pretty specific to me. But it turns out most users of the Rockmelt iPad browser were acting a lot like me.

According to the founders Tim Howes and Eric Vishria (pictured with wives above), the average user goes through 200 or so tiles everyday, they read and interact with about seven or eight stories a day, the sessions are over 30 minutes, usually spread between two times: At morning and at night.  (PS: You can see them dancing in the First Round Capital Video at the 1:30 minute mark. That's Eric in pink. He looks less awkward than other entrepreneurs, because he's from Memphis. Everyone from Memphis has at least at tiny bit of soul, even engineers.)

There are two ways to look at this. The first is: Oh great, we are so useful we're changing how someone uses the tablet! The second is: Oh shit, we really need to be on the device people actually have with them all the time. 

Enter-- finally-- the Rockmelt version for iPhone. I'm sure Vishria and Howes wouldn't go so far as to say launching on the iPad first was a mistake. But the few dozen beta testers have shown far more engagement throughout the day since they've been using the iPhone app. It helps that Rockmelt has geared the app towards mid-day content "snacking."

You can use it with one hand and do everything with a single thumb. And it syncs with your iPad, for an Instapaper read-it-later effect. You spot some stories you want to check out in the line for coffee, you read them when you get in bed at night. So far, with beta testers, this has encouraged people to dig deeper into the content. Vishrai says he would sidebar some five to ten things before, and now he has fifty on there at any given time. There are also little touches like optimizing for the cellular network as opposed to wifi.

There's one big area where my usage parts company with what Rockmelt has seen from the average user and what it wants to see: Social interaction. I am selfish and cloistered when I'm using RockMelt. I don't want to "hmmm" or "wtf?" things and the extent of my sharing is forwarding things to my team to ask them to Ticker, look into, or the dreaded "Why-didn't-we-have-this?" ("The tyranny of Rockmelt for iPad" some of them call my morning and evening sessions. Let's just say the whole team can verify how much I use the app.)

But I have no interest in syncing it with my Twitter or Facebook networks or activity streams. I have no interest in following anyone. I want everyone to leave me alone and let me read. The average Rockmelt iPad user in contrast shares six times more than they did on the regular browser version and "emotes" about four things per day.

If Rockmelt is lucky enough to get this sucker truly mainstream, my guess is more people are like me. Aren't we all just socialed out? I just don't have any reason to make this a social experience, and I'm already struggling to squeeze in vertical social networks I like, like Path.

I asked Vishria how crucial the social element is to Rockmelt's success. He put it pretty simply, "If we have your time, our ability to monetize is still there."

He also compared it to Instagram. At first it was really about just taking photos and using the filters, but over time a social network built up around that activity that people valued. Yes and no. Even in the early Instagram days, it had a core activity that people wanted to share. What's the point of filter-ing up a picture of yourself on a yacht if no one sees it? Even if it wasn't social over Instagram, the product was always inherently social somewhere. I'm not sure an article by Harvard Business Review has the same attributes.

The other thing that struck me a few months into using Rockmelt for iPad: I'd never once actually used it as a browser. Isn't this thing supposed to be a modern browser optimized for mobile, and not, say a really awesome digital magazine?

As Vishria said when we last spoke: “We’re undergoing a shift in navigation that’s as fundamental as the shift from the command like to the Graphical User Interface. You still enter text in the browser and tell it where you want to go. That hasn’t changed since Marc (Andreessen) and Mosiac and it’s even worse on mobile.” Isn't this one of the reasons it was significant that Andreessen Horowitz is Rockmelt's biggest backer?

Well it turns out I just wasn't accounting for just how deconstructed Vishria's view of the browser is. The very goal in Rockmelt's design is that you are browsing the Web without ever entering a URL into a little rectangle. "We want to make it so that you don't have to use that shitty keyboard at all," he says. "We believe the majority of browsing is content consumption. If we do a good job on that, you don't have to use it like a traditional browser but we are still eating up browser time."

Back in October, Vishria described the new version as an all-in, bet-the-company move. I asked how it was looking, and he gave the magic-eight-ball sounding answer of "it's too early to tell but the signs are positive." As I said at the time, this deconstructed version of a mobile-only browser may be too radical for many mainstream users to get. Meanwhile a debate has sprung up over whether or not mobile first really is the right way to build a company, given how much harder building an audience is versus the regular Web.

RockMelt's last round was $30 million, raised in June. With a small staff of 40 people, the company still has plenty of runway to prove itself.

(Marc Andreessen and First Round's Josh Kopelman are also an investors in PandoDaily.)