Posted by: Douglas Macmillan on August 14, 2009
Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen is busy making dozens of small bets on startups in his $300 million venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. RockMelt may emerge as one of his most intriguing investments, because of both his history as a pioneer in Web browsing and his current ties to social networking behemoth Facebook.
The New York Times reported on Friday that the Andreessen-backed startup will somehow incorporate Facebook user names in its browser, so that users could presumably interact with their friends on the social network while they’re surfing around the Web. Andreessen currently sits on Facebook’s board, but the newspaper reports that Facebook is not explicitly connected to the project. That wouldn’t prevent RockMelt from tapping into the social network’s API, a code that makes Facebook data available to other Web sites and services.
What makes Andreessen think the market will support another Web browser? Microsoft’s Internet Explorer still owns the lion’s share, 68%, of the market, though Mozilla’s Firefox continues to steadily gain ground with 22%, according to data tracker Net Applications. The next two most used browsers, Safari and Chrome, have yet to surpass 10% market share combined, but Apple and Google are investing heavily in those products.
As people turn to the Web for greater chunks of their day and more activities in their lives, the browser has become one of the most important pieces of software installed on most computers. That means the average newcomer won’t easily jump to some newcomer, regardless of its backer.
Though we know little about RockMelt so far, what we do know sounds a lot like Flock, the “social Web browser” launched in late 2007 that’s raised more than $28 million but has failed to gain any significant share of the market. I remember liking the idea of Flock – having a constant sidebar of conversations happening on Twitter, Facebook, and other social sites that are important to me while I surf elsewhere – but when I downloaded it, it was too slow and lacked some of the basic functions I’m accustomed to using in other browsers.
It’s also unclear what RockMelt could create that would be more appealing than the library of Facebook add-ons that are available for Firefox.
I’m skeptical, but if there’s one person who could inject a dose of creativity into Web browsing and help make a business out of it, it’s Andreessen. RockMelt is led by Eric Vishria and Tim Howes, former Opsware execs.
Plus: Firefox is proof that the entire browser category benefits from new, imaginative competitors.