Netscape Mafia release RockMelt web browser with a social twist

Posted on November 8, 2010

0


MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. NYT — Silicon Valley is awash in tales of the “PayPal Mafia,” the tight-knit group of PayPal alumni who have helped one another start and finance a crop of new companies.

But William V. Campbell, who is something of a godfather figure in the Valley, said, in a rare interview, “There is a ‘Netscape Mafia,’ too.”

And as Mafia families sometimes do, the Netscape Mafia is coming together for a reunion.

On Monday, RockMelt, a company founded and financed by a group of Netscape alumni, will release a new Web browser, 16 years after Netscape introduced the first commercial Internet browser, and 12 years after the company was sold to AOL after its defeat by Microsoft in the so-called browser wars.

“We think it is a fantastic time to build a company around a browser,” said Marc Andreessen, who co-founded Netscape, and whose venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is the principal financial backer of RockMelt.

Although most people spend more time using their Web browser than any other program on their computers, most browsers have not kept up with the evolution of the Web into a social media hub, Mr. Andreessen said. He and Mr. Campbell, a former Netscape board member who is advising the new company as well as investing in it, say RockMelt is a browser for the Facebook era.

At first glance, RockMelt looks like an ordinary browser, a digital windowpane onto the Web. But along the side of its main window are two thin rails with icons, one showing a user’s friends on the left, and another displaying a user’s favorite social sites, including Twitter and Facebook, on the right.

A “share” button makes it easy to post a Web page, a YouTube video or any other items, to Facebook, Twitter or other sites. Similarly, users can update their status or keep tabs on their friends’ activities on any social network right on their main browser window. They can also easily add and remove friends, or chat with them, on the left-side rail.

When a user searches the Web using Google, RockMelt not only delivers the Google search results, but also fetches the pages associated with those results, so a user can preview those pages quickly and decide which to click to.

“Had we known about Facebook and Twitter and Google back in ’92 or ’93, we would have built them into the browser,” Mr. Andreessen said, referring to Netscape. “This is an opportunity to go back and do it right.”

Like other browsers, RockMelt will be free, and like the popular open-source browser Firefox, it plans to make money by earning a share of the revenue from Web searches conducted by its users.

For all its modern features, the challenges facing RockMelt, which is inviting users to try a test version on Monday, are enormous. The browser market has become intensely competitive in recent years and is dominated by giants like Microsoft, Apple and Google, as well as Mozilla, which makes Firefox.

“Getting heard above the noise is going to be hard,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the co-author of “Competing on Internet Time,” a book that chronicled the battle between Netscape and Microsoft.

Consider the fate of Chrome, the latest major competitor in the browser market, which Google introduced two years ago. Despite good reviews and being heavily promoted by Google — through ads and links on the company’s home page, the most visited page on the Web — Chrome has captured just 8 percent of the browser market, according to NetApplications, which tracks browser usage.

Even Microsoft, considered a laggard in innovation for much of the last decade, has revamped Internet Explorer in recent years and is expected to release a new and improved version soon. A test version of the product was downloaded 10 million times in just six weeks, Microsoft said.

“There is no reason to suggest that the momentum that we have seen in the past six weeks is going to slow,” said Ryan Gavin, senior director for Internet Explorer at Microsoft.

RockMelt’s ties to Netscape run deep. The company was co-founded by Tim Howes, 47, and Eric Vishria, 31. Mr. Howes, the chief technology officer, is a former Netscape executive who developed some of the most widely used Internet technologies. Mr. Vishria did not work at Netscape but was a senior executive at Opsware, the company Mr. Andreessen, Mr. Howes and Ben Horowitz, Mr. Andreessen’s venture capital partner, founded after they left Netscape.

Then there is Mr. Campbell, a former chief executive of companies like Intuit; Go, a renowned but failed maker of a pen computer; and Claris, which made software for Macintosh computers. He is known in Silicon Valley as the coach. Mr. Campbell once coached Columbia’s football team, but he earned the moniker more recently for his role as a behind-the-scenes adviser to a long list of young entrepreneurs and veteran executives, including Steven P. Jobs of Apple, on whose board he currently serves, and Eric E. Schmidt of Google.

Mr. Campbell is now helping Mr. Vishria and Mr. Howes with recruitment, organization and management.

Mr. Howes and Mr. Vishria built RockMelt using Chromium, the same open source browser technology that Google used for Chrome. But unlike Chrome and other major browsers that run entirely on a user’s PC, RockMelt will manage users’ interactions with sites like Facebook and Twitter in its data center. To make that possible, users will be required to log into RockMelt.

“This is the beginning of what we think browsers will look like in the next decade,” Mr. Vishria said.

RockMelt is not the first browser built around social networking features. Three years ago, Flock introduced a browser that also makes it easy to share items with sites like Facebook and Twitter. While Flock gained a loyal following, it never broke into the big leagues of the browser market, though it has recently released a well-reviewed upgrade.

Industry insiders say that Flock may have been ahead of its time, since it was developed before social networks became mainstream. RockMelt’s timing may give it a better chance at success.

“If they build a browser that matches the way people work, it will get some adoption,” said John Lilly, the former chief executive of Mozilla. “But it is hard to make people change their habits.”

RockMelt’s backers acknowledge that getting the browser into users’ hands will be a big challenge, but they say that if the product is good enough, it will spread through recommendations.

“You hope it is going to happen by word of mouth,” said Mr. Cambpell. Noting his ties to Apple, which makes the Safari browser, and Google, which he advised for many years, Mr. Campbell added, “I don’t want to be poking at Chrome and Safari, but this is unique.”

Advertisements
Posted in: Social Sites