The rumor mill has been buzzing for months about the imminent arrival of a new “Facebook browser” called RockMelt.
Well, it really does exist, and it’s here. RockMelt is being released as a limited public beta Sunday. Anyone can sign up to test it out, but the release will be throttled so as not to overload the cloud-based components of the app. RockMelt will be doling out download links as quickly as it can manage on a first-come, first-served basis.
The two founders, CEO Eric Vishria and CTO Tim Howes, demonstrated RockMelt to Wired a few days before Sunday’s launch.
It’s based on Chromium, so it inherits Google Chrome’s speed, looks, and basic functionality on both Mac and Windows.
And while its Facebook integration runs deep, RockMelt is not exactly a Facebook browser. It’s a social web browser, allowing you to post links, videos and status updates to both Facebook and Twitter (that’s it for now, but more services will be added later). There are also built-in clients for consuming your Facebook feed and managing multiple Twitter feeds, a chat client, and lightweight RSS reader. It does use your Facebook account to personalize the experience, but its reach is broader than just Facebook.
We’ve seen browsers custom-built for the social web before, most notably Flock, which launched as a MySpaced-up version of Firefox. Mozilla experimented with Ubiquity, an in-browser tool for posting to different social sites and interacting with web services. There are a number of add-ons that can embed social networking dashboards into the browser for you. These tools have grown in popularity as we’ve struggled to manage the ever-increasing flow of links, media and bits shared by our online friends.
So, the idea isn’t original. And RockMelt doesn’t sport a complete re-invention of the browser interface, either. But it is very streamlined, and there are some key elements that people who live and breathe the social web will find intriguing.
The all-new beta of the Flock browser is based on the same code as Google Chrome. The company ditched Firefox in favor of Chromium in this new version.
The social web browser Flock is undergoing a major change in its next release. The upcoming Flock 3.0 will move away from the Firefox backend Flock has used for years in favor of Chromium, the open source implementation of Google Chrome.
If you’d like to test a beta version of the new Flock browser, head over to Flock beta page and grab a copy. For now the new Chromium-based Flock is available for Windows 7, XP and Vista only. A Mac version is reportedly in the works.
Flock is a browser built for social web junkies. It helps you manage your identity across multiple social websites, and it brings status updates and posting widgets directly into the browser via sidebars. Ever since the browser was first introduced in 2006, it’s been based on Firefox’s open source browser code, so this new version is a drastic change of plans. Flock is a niche browser — its user base is minuscule compared to the web at large — but those who do use it are dedicated and passionate about it.
The new Flock has been radically simplified, eliminating support for all but the biggest social networks and media sharing sites, namely Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Sorry MySpace, you’re just not part of the social web anymore (at least according to Flock).
The Flock 3.0 beta is a totally different browser than its predecessors — about the only thing that’s the same is the name. As you would expect, Flock now looks like Google Chrome, with tabs on top and the familiar, all-in-one URL and search bar. Flock has added some of the tools from older versions, rebuilding them on top of the new Chrome foundation, namely the social networking account manager and a sidebar that displays all your friends’ updates and lets you post your own status updates.
The sidebar looks similar to previous versions, though there are some new filters. You can narrow your Twitter updates to show only mentions or direct messages, and curb Facebook noise by eliminating wall posts, pokes, event invites or whatever. Just about every type of notification can be toggled on or off for any of the supported services.
Manage your groups in Flock's sidebar.
Perhaps the most useful addition to Flock 3.0 is the ability to create groups of friends to filter and manage your incoming updates. Out of the box, Flock offers two groups — Best Friends and Co-workers — though you can customize and create your own groups as well. Once you’ve got your groups set up, Flock makes it very simple to switch between seeing what your friends are up to, what’s going on with your work colleagues, your family, and so on. For those with hundreds of contacts and friends spread across multiple sites, and for those who apply different social standards when interacting with people from different parts of their life, this will likely be Flock 3.0′s killer feature.
Another very useful new feature is the integrated search field in the URL bar. Flock has changed the way Chromium’s URL search bar works to include your friend’s Twitter posts, Facebook updates, Flickr images and YouTube video in your searches. It makes easy to find out what your friends have said about whatever you’re searching for.
We’ve been using Flock for several years now and have to admit that we’ve never quite been able to figure our where it fits into our daily browsing tasks. Previous versions were sluggish, and the amount of setup required to interact with a bunch of different websites was overwhelming. Also, it’s an open secret that there was little Flock could do that you couldn’t accomplish by installing a few good add-ons to vanilla Firefox.
By contrast, the new Flock is a svelte, speedy browser. It immediately feels more relevant and fresh. And, in narrowing its support to only the most popular social sites, Flock is less daunting for newcomers. Getting started is in fact incredibly elegant — the browser launches with a screen that asks you to set up a Flock account, but you can skip it and just start surfing. As you log in to social sites like Twitter and Facebook, Flock begins filling out the social sidebar with updates from your friends on those sites mere seconds after you’ve logged in.
That said, you long-time Flock users may be unhappy with the new version — particularly if you rely on any Flock-compatible Firefox add-ons or use any of the many sites Flock no longer supports. While Flock 3.0 should work with any Chrome extensions, Chrome extensions do not have quite the same range of function as those in Firefox.
If you’d like to give the new Flock a try, head over the beta download page and grab a copy. Keep in mind that Flock 3.0 is still a beta and may have some bugs. If you’re on a Mac, there’s a mailing list you can sign up for to be notified when a Mac version is available.
Another day, another browser. Stainless was released by Mesa Dynamics as a proof of concept. The concept? A working, less ambitious version of Google’s Chrome browser.
According to the Stainless website, it is available (for free) now simply because the project is less ambitious than the eventual version of Chrome on the Mac. Besides the fact that it doesn’t have all the robust backend features Chrome will eventually have on its Mac version, from an end-user’s perspective it’s Google’s Chrome browser in all its speed and simplicity.
Stainless runs on Mac OS X Leopard — but only Leopard. Tiger enthusiasts may have to hang tight for Google’s eventual Mac release or use the variety of other browsers (Firefox, Safari) available.
Chrome and Stainless have a lot in common. At first glance, both browsers have almost identical streamlined interfaces. There is little to no clutter on the screen. The tabs line up at the top of the screen without menus maximizing web space. New tab windows are created by a little plus sign on the browser menu.
Stainless is a very stripped down browser. For evidence of this, look no further than the preferences panel. There are literally two options: A pulldown menu to designate what will open on startup — a welcome page or a home page of your choosing. The other option allows you to choose a default search from the address bar.
It does combine the address book with search, a feature now typical in all new browsers. Whether you call it the awesome bar (Firefox) or Quick Find (Opera) or whatever, the search and address fields are becoming more and more the same thing in all browsers.
There are plenty of proof of concept (read: alpha) issues too. Flash 9 is installed and video runs smoothly, but support for other plug-ins and add-ons are out. The major stopping block to making Stainless your default browser is it has no download manager, and therefore, no way to download anything.
It takes a bit more memory per tab than, say, Firefox, but it makes those tabs a fortress onto their own. If one tab breaks, it doesn’t take the browser down with it. When a tab is closed, the memory for the tab is freed.
The company and its multi-process design was inspired not only by Chrome, but also on a web-wrapper application called Hypercube. Hypercube is able to take widgets, gadgets and Flash movies from the web to your desktop. The way Hypercube is structured, running each widget on a different process, inspired the company to try out a browser.
Stainless joins another Chrome look-alike on the Mac scene, Codeweaver’s Crossover Chromium. Unlike Stainless, Crossover Chromium actually runs the Windows version of Chrome on a Mac desktop, albeit very slowly.
Taking a step back, the benefits of a streamlined browser like Stainless, or even Chrome, is it doesn’t make any promises. It won’t email or clutter things with buttons or programs you’re not sure of. It is stable as an application can be. Stainless adheres to this idea, ensuring all tabs run its own processes.
What this browser is, even if you consider it was not made to be taken seriously, is a bare bones window to the internet. A browser and a search bar and not much else. Perhaps this is what everyone really needs to allow the features of web applications speak for themselves. Speed and stability is important, but in this case, I doubt it. If Stainless is an indication of the future of open-source browsers, expect many more third-party browsers running off of existing rendering technology.
Luckily, because most of these new browsers will be working off of existing open-source rendering code, web developers will only have to work for the underlying rendering engines, and not the browsers themselves. For example, even if there are 100 Webkit-based browsers, I only need one Webkit-enabled webpage for them all.
Besides, it’s not likely these alternative browsers are going to get much traction. The jury isn’t out yet, but in spite of a first month spike in browser usage across the web, Chrome hasn’t taken much market share from its Windows competitor Internet Explorer or its runner-up Firefox. It is not like Chrome rip-offs like Stainless will do the same for Mac users either.