Facebook Partners With RockMelt to Outsource Development of Social Web Browser

Third-party social web browser developer RockMelt announced today that it has established a long-term partnership with Facebook’s engineering and design teams to build the newly released RockMelt Beta 3 and future products. Along with an improved Chat and integrated Notifications, Requests, and Messages experience, Facebook.com appears differently when browsed through the new version of RockMelt, with elements including Chat and alerts hidden from view since they appear in the browser.

The partnership with the 40-employee RockMelt will allow Facebook to guide the development of a web browser without expending nearly as many resources as would have taken to release one itself. It could also lend legitimacy to RockMelt, which says it has only had 1 million people try its product to date, though its few hundred thousand active users log an average of 6.5 hours a day on the product.

Six months ago RockMelt launched the private beta of its social web browser, designed to pull frequently used parts of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs inside the browser chrome. Beta2 saw the addition of multi-friend Chat support, further updates allow it to pull in data from YouTube and RSS, and the public beta launched 10 weeks ago.

User adoption of the Andressen-Horowitz-backed project or other social browsers such as Wowd has yet to explode. Still, founders Eric Vishria and Tim Howes are optimistic. “Over 500 million people have switched browsers in the last three years,” they told us. “81% of our users are 34 or younger. For those in the social generation, it just makes sense. Conversion rates and retention are high. They just get it.”

A deeper integration with Facebook offering unique value could kickstart growth.”There’s no way this release would happen without them,” Vishria and Howes told us. “We’re interacting with them five times a day to get this done.” Though Facebook is hiring for a Seattle-based desktop software team, RockMelt said it was working with a Palo Alto team from Facebook headquarters. This may support our prediction that Facebook’s desktop team isn’t building a browser, but instead software such as media usage scrobbling widgets that will help users share their music listening and video watching habits.

RockMelt Beta3’s New Features

Downloadable starting at 10am PST today, RockMelt Beta3 features several new features that allow browser chrome customization and streamline social experiences. Users can now swap the dock-like App Edge and the buddy list-esque Friend Edge between the left and right rails of the browser. The Friend Edge can be clicked to expand and show the names of friends instead of just their profile pictures, which can be hard to identify.

When a friend in the Friend Edge is clicked, it starts a Facebook Chat with them that automatically imports your Chat history. RockMelt Beta3 works with Facebook’s unified messaging product to seamlessly switch from Messages to Chat if a friend is online. A user’s Notifications, Requests, and Messages all appear in the top center of the chrome with counters denoting new activity.

Perhaps most interesting though is what Facebook’s team has done to change Facebook.com when visited through RockMelt. Rather than appear redundant, a user’s Chat buddy list and alerts don’t appear on the site, only in the browser. Clicking within Facebook to initiate a Chat opens the Chat in RockMelt instead, so users can carry on the conversation even as they browse other sites.

Outsourcing the Facebook Browser

Vishria and Howes tell us RockMelt Beta3 is “the beginning of what the modern browser looks like”. They say there’s many more social features to build out as part of the Facebook partnership, including “creating an unbelievable photo experience, Places, Like integrations — we’re constantly brainstorming and collaborating.” The companies may have been connected by Marc Andressen, both a Facebook board member and a core RockMelt investor who believes RockMelt could be the fifth browser to reach over 100 million users.

RockMelt’s 40-person engineering and design-focused team builds on Google’s Chromium open source browser which has 200 devs, which is turn built on WebKit that has its own army of open source devs. Without an overwhelming user demand for social browsers, developing one internally could be a strategic misstep for Facebook, but working with RockMelt might accomplish similar goals much more efficiently. This way, Facebook can work on more crucial or unexpected projects while still keeping its small size and startup culture.

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