After Yahoo’s Rockmelt Acquisition, Is It the End for Social Web Browsers?

Social networks have infiltrated almost every aspect of the tech space, but web browsers seem strangely immune.

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If there’s one word that defines the current state of software development, it would have to be “social.”

Many major websites allow users to log in using their Facebook, Twitter, or Google accounts. Apple has integrated Facebook and Twitter on the OS level, allowing users to post new statuses and photos without navigating to the respective service’s website. Popular music service Spotify once went as far as to require that all users have a Facebook account in order to join (people complained, and the decision was reversed in August of 2012).

One corner that social hasn’t managed to fully invade: the web browser. And with Rockmelt — one of the more popular social browsers — now being shut down following an acquisition by Yahoo, it looks like no one is close to cracking the code.

Rockmelt is just the latest social browser that failed to find a niche. The company first launched a product in 2010, a modified version of the technology powering Google’s Chrome browser that allowed users to see what their friends were up to and easily share web pages across multiple social networks.

When that strategy didn’t catch on, Rockmelt went mobile, developing iPhone and iPad applications that kept the general idea of the browser while also adding a Flipboard-esque feature that displayed links specially tailored to a user’s interests, favorite sites, and what their friends were talking about. This April, Rockmelt dropped support for its original browser entirely, instead offering desktop users a web app that mimicked the functionality of its mobile counterparts. But before the web app could be given a chance to succeed, the company was bought and all of its properties shuttered.

Flock, one of the early web browsers built around integrated social networking, followed a similarly unsuccessful path. It first launched in 2005 with support for blogging, Flickr integration, and the ability to share bookmarks between friends on services like Delicious. Flock gradually added Twitter and Facebook support as both services entered the mainstream, but the browser never caught on and eventually sputtered out. Songbird, a web-based music player that leveraged technology from Mozilla’s Firefox browser, sported various connections to social media and music blogs, and also tried the iPhone app route. Eventually, it ditched the browser entirely and open-sourced the code.

So why have social browsers continued to bite the dust, even as other programs leverage social ties to gain millions of users? According to Jeffrey Mann, a technology analyst for Gartner, the answer is two-fold:

First, most people are reluctant to switch browsers, even when blown away by a competitor’s feature set. “Browsers are sticky,” says Mann. “We customize our browser and add links so that it is hard emotionally and technically to switch. It is often forbidden when using work computers.”

Ian McKellar, one of Flock’s original team members, also recalled how hard it was to get anyone to change their browser to Flock for the long term. “It’s hard to convince people to download something and use it, and use it all day every day,” says McKellar, who recounted how users would use Flock for social bookmarking before returning to another browser for general web-surfing. “They wouldn’t commit.”

Second, Mann believes that social browsers just don’t offer enough new features to justify a change. “I can do what I want to do with my current present browser,” says Mann. “Does [a social browser] solve a problem I know I have? In most cases no, or at least not enough to warrant a switch.”

McKellar agrees on this point as well. On the subject of Flock’s integrated social feed, a feature reminiscent of Rockmelt’s iOS apps, the developer questioned whether it was ever a viable selling point. “I’m not sure that anyone really wanted that” says McKellar. “I think people actually don’t mind keeping those [services] separate.” This lack of interest in more social integration than what already exists might also help explain why the most popular browsers —Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer — are wary of adding such features to their product. Instead, all have focused on speed, security, and getting out of the user’s way.

McKellar also brings up the point that any service trying to integrate multiple social networks will lose what makes each one individually special. A tweet and a Facebook update might seem interchangeable, but one is limited to 140 characters while the other could be paragraphs. And where do visually-oriented services like Vine, Instagram, or even Pinterest fit in among their textual counterparts?

In spite of this wide-spread pessimism, some companies are trying to prove the naysayers wrong. Torch, a browser also built on top of Google’s Chromium code, allows users to simply drag links, photos, or other data to the left side of the screen in order to share it across social networks. It also offers a persistent share button to enable posting content to Facebook, Twitter, and other services without leaving the current tab. In June of this year, the browser passed 10 million monthly active users.

Beamrise, another social browser competitor, takes a different tact. Instead of focusing on sharing, the company’s software integrates chat services from Facebook, Skype, and Google (among others), as well and video chat and text messaging. In doing so, Beamrise hopes to attract users by always keeping their friends a keystroke away.

Torch CTO Ariel Shulman is optimistic about his company’s chances, even as he admits that surmounting one of the major browsers is an all but impossible task. When people go online, they are “looking to be entertained and they’re also looking to connect with others ,” says Shulman. “What they don’t want to do… is to try and find all sorts of different applications to do what they’re trying to do.”

Shulman believes that the strength of Torch is in its out-of-the-box integration with multiple services and the company’s ability to quickly add the newest social networks. Torch already supports downloading Vine and Instagram video, despite the fact both services were released relatively recently. Such rapid development might prove difficult for less agile competitors like Google and Microsoft, should either attempt to challenge Torch’s social feature set.

Will this latest round of social browsers succeed where the last group failed? It’s hard to be optimistic in the face of such consistent defeat, but at the same time, it’s hard to count social out. If Twitter can infiltrate the kitchen, then anything is possible.

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