The next big thing
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RockMelt aims to disrupt the mobile browser space with a premium content experience

The browser wars are notoriously brutal. It’s a competitive industry with high barriers to entry, entrenched giants battling for share and enormous inertia in customer behavior. Tilting at giants like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome, a courageous startup has entered the fray hoping to compete on quality of experience. RockMelt, founded by Eric Vishria and Tim Howes, launched two years ago as a social browser for the desktop, integrating search with a social layer. This week, RockMelt launched its new mobile browser for the iPad, combining the functionality of a reader with search. Lean Back 2.0 spoke to Vishria from his Mountain View, California office. 

When I think of RockMelt competing against the big guys on differentiated experience, I’m reminded of Southwest Airlines entering the airline market with a different take on how to do business.  Are you the Herb Kelleher of browsers? I haven’t heard that articulation of it, but I like it. If you look at the market and you look at the product that is available to the average internet user, browsers have been the same for 20 years. From our perspective, the web has changed and how people use the web has changed, so it’s natural for us to step back and do a much more fundamental rethink of how the browser works. Add mobile- typing is more cumbersome, touch is more important- and it becomes obvious that the browser is in need of a change. 

What did you learn from the original desktop version of RockMelt that you have expressed in the new mobile edition? On the desktop version, there are three basic parts: the App Edge for your favorite sites, the core browser and your friends. There are two things we saw on the desktop version. First, the average user was opening those favorite sites 27 times a day on average. That is unbelievable engagement. We realized that people are using App Edge to navigate the web, rather than using the URL bar or traditional bookmarks. That made us think- why are we making them click 27 times? We should take all of that and make it the experience. You open up the mobile edition and bam, it’s all there.   

The second big thing is how people share. The average user shares to Facebook or Twitter on the desktop about once every 36 hours. We asked people, why are you sharing on this interval? The overwhelming feedback was that while people come across cool stuff all the time, they don’t want to spam their friends’ feeds. So what we did in Rockmelt is create a lightweight, fun and easy way for people to share the best web content. We’re using “emoticodes” to give people the ability to express basic emotions on any piece of content.  It’s either funny, you like it, you want it, you WTF it – that’s what makes the internet great. What we’re seeing already is that the users who ‘emote’ content are emoting stuff four or more times a day. That’s what we wanted to see – increased engagement.     

Is “emoting” a gerund that you made up?  Yes – we think of it as coding the internet. 

How are you working with publishers? The key aspect of working with publishers is that we would like to show content as fast as possible. Speed yields a better user experience. In order to show content really quickly, it’s more efficient to load it in a reader view. That’s much faster than loading a web page and is clearly a better user experience, so that will mean more sharing and thus more views of that content. So we want to work with publishers to show their content in a reader view. The basic model and benefit to publishers right now is the additional distribution and social lift for their content. In terms of the economics, it’s early days, and we’re very much figuring that out.   

Is there anything you’ve learned from publishers? One of the biggest things we’ve realized is that you cannot compete with the breadth and richness of the web.  In all of these curated experiences- the native apps- you run out of stuff to look at that matches your interests immediately. A fantastic app gets people for 3-5 minutes. The beauty of the web is that you and I can look at the same Wikipedia page and in three minutes we’ll be in different places. We want to allow that to exist while at the same time preserving the user experience of an app. 

The second big thing we’ve learned is that about the social layer. The amount of traffic everyone is getting through this layer is enormous and growing. We doubled down on that to build the “emote layer”. That’s only going to increase over time. The web has got so big, that people rely on social signals.   

The new version has been live now for a couple of weeks. What have you learned, and what can we expect in the next update? One of the big things I’d emphasize is that for most publishers – aside from the very biggest brands in publishing like The Economist and the New York Times- the approach where everyone is going to have their own app that is independent isn’t going to be a good user experience. With Rockmelt, with one app users can get to a bunch of content- and what we’re trying to do on top of that is to add a social layer that will see good content distributed further and faster. With this product we’re able to deliver a better experience. The publisher gets the beautiful, fast experience with the accessibility benefit outside of their apps. That’s a great value proposition for the publisher, and for the users.