In general, I don't like gimmicky offshoot web browsers, but RockMelt -- which has the backing of Netscape co-creator Marc Andreesen -- has been getting so much attention that I wanted to at least try it out. I went to the web site and signed up for the invitation-only beta, and within a few hours, an online friend saw my request and sent me one of her invites. Soon after that, I was up and running.
I have to say, RockMelt may be a gimmick, but it's the best kind of gimmick. I'm enjoying it much more than I thought I would.
RockMelt is based on Chromium, the same open-source software as Google's Chrome browser, and if you've used Chrome you'll find RockMelt familiar.
But what makes RockMelt unique is that it's a browser built for social networking, especially Facebook. In fact, you can't even install the browser without signing in to your Facebook account and allowing RockMelt to link to it. If you don't use Facebook regularly, and many people don't, there's little point in trying RockMelt. But if you do use Facebook, and Twitter, regularly, RockMelt offers you an easy and elegant way to keep up with them while you're doing something else.
There are two narrow columns running up either side of the browser window. On the left are little icons of your Facebook friends, with the ones who are online right now at the top. You also have the option of marking some of your friends as "favorites" and displaying only them.
On the right are icons representing your Facebook news feed and your Facebook profile, as well as room for lots of other little icons. You can add multiple Twitter accounts, and you can also add right-column icons for any web page which has an RSS feed (such as blogs, podcasts, news sites, or other frequently-updated pages). Whenever there is unread content associated with any of those icons in the right column, a number pops up to show how many new items there are. So a "5" next to your Facebook icon means there are five new items in your news feed.
If you click on the icon, a little drop-down window displays the feed -- without disrupting whatever you're doing in the main browser window. Another nice feature of the browser is that it uses a similar drop-down window for search results whenever you use the search bar.
There are also built-in buttons for updating your Facebook (or Twitter) status and for sharing items on Facebook or Twitter.
It sounds a lot more complicated than it really is. Once you start using it, it's actually very simple.
I originally downloaded the beta at home, on my PC. The next morning, I downloaded it to my Mac here at the office. I was disappointed to see my bookmark bar from home automatically recreated on the work computer, without me asking RockMelt to do this. Bookmark synchronization sounds like a great idea, but I have my bookmarks organized differently at home and at work, on purpose, because I use my computer for different things in each place. I don't see a way to turn this bookmark synchronization off, although there may be one.
The program also synchs extensions; any extension you install at one location will also show up at the other.
There are also a few initial kinks. Apparently the two little sidebars get their information from servers at RockMelt's web site, and there's an occasional bug, which the company acknowledged on its blog, which causes them not to pop up when you launch the browser. The company says this is due to load issues and they're working to resolve it. I also had a little trouble with the browser not wanting to update my Twitter status, although that appeared to be fixed as of Monday night.
Problems are to be expected; the software is still in beta, after all.
I'm hoping they can get those problems worked out, however, because I have to say I like RockMelt.
You can sign up for the beta test at rockmelt.com. Those who do get the software are given a certain number of invites, and they're also shown whether any of their Facebook friends have already requested the beta, allowing them, if they choose, to use their invites on people whom they know for sure want the software.
But maybe you aren't interested in more closely following your Facebook friends. In fact, maybe you want to get rid of some of them.
Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel has been promoting today as "National Unfriend Day." Kimmel's tongue-in-cheek point is that many of us have Facebook friends with whom we have little real acquaintance, and Kimmel has been urging his viewers to do some pruning of their Facebook friend lists today to leave only those people whom they truly consider friends.
Kimmel even got the band War to record a parody version of their 1970s hit "Why Can't We Be Friends?" The new version, which you can find at YouTube, is entitled "Why Can't We Unfriend?"
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.