Is it worth switching to a new browser? Marc Andreessen never had to force users to ask that question when he built Mosaic in 1993. For most early adopters, it was their first browser.
But now he’s backing the development of another browser, RockMelt. This browser is not perfect, but it does show that there’s room yet in the market. If Facebook built a browser, it would probably look a lot like this.
This has been tried before. The other social Web browser, Flock, integrates Facebook features. Also, like Flock (at least the new 3.0 version), RockMelt is built from Chromium, the same Google-developed open toolkit underneath the Chrome browser.
RockMelt is solid effort and is worth trying. Here are some reasons you will probably like it; and, to be fair, some things that may turn you off:
Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)
Why you’ll like it
It’s a real social browser
RockMelt shows which of your friends are online on Facebook, right in your browser. If you want to share something from the Web, you’ll know who’s going to see it right away. It makes sharing links and pages more engaging than using Twitter or even Facebook’s site. (Downside: you can’t scroll the left-hand “Facebar,” which is sorted alphabetically, so unless you filter your friends by your RockMelt favorites, you’ll always see your “A” friends on your list but you may never see your “Zs.”)
Yet the social aspect is not overwhelming
RockMelt puts your friends in a narrow bar on the left, and status badges for sites (Facebook and Twitter, plus RSS feeds and plug-ins) in a skinny bar along the right. On wide-screen and large monitors, these dashboards are at once informative and unobtrusive. The design works. Flock’s social sidebar has the cool feature of pulling status updates from all your social networks into one stream, but it’s more in your face than RockMelt’s.
Sharing is fun and easy. So is updating
There’s a “share” button near the URL entry field. You can share pages to Facebook or Twitter easily and intuitively. The same button lets you send links as private messages directly to specific Facebook users (but not as direct messages to Twitter friends.)
If this were a Facebook browser, by the way, it’d probably say “Like” instead on the Share button. Look for that change when Facebook buys out this company.
You can also send out Facebook and Twitter status updates without sharing anything. It’s equally easy and fast, although the status update button is in a different part of the browser frame.
It has a really slick search function
RockMelt breaks with Chrome’s single URL and search box concept and gives you an old-fashioned search field alongside, just like ye olde Firefox. When you search in the RockMelt field, you get a drop-down window with results that pre-cache into the background. As you cursor down the list, the page behind the window updates fast. Power browsers will appreciate a tiny but wonderful “add as tab” button in each result in the search window that opens a result in a new tab without changing your focus to it. Got a lot of results you want to visit later? Click, click, click. They’re loaded into tabs that you can get to at your leisure.
You can still search in the URL field, as with Chrome, but RockMelt’s search is better.
It’s fast like Chrome
Although it appears to be a bit of a process hog, RockMelt is fast. There’s no speed penalty for the social features.
It does RSS better than any other browser
If you’re on a site with an RSS feed, a little icon lights up to let you know it. It’s a snap to subscribe to the feed and add a site icon into your right-hand sidebar. RSS results display in a scrolling window, with previews. The RSS preview window doesn’t have the same functionality as the search results window, however.
The beta has a great invitation system
During the beta period, when you go to the RockMelt site, you’re asked to sign in with Facebook. If you request an invitation, your Facebook friends who are on RockMelt will see that you’re awaiting access when they open up their browser. Any one of them can then hook you up. As a pal on Twitter said, “It makes the inviter and invitee feel special.”
Still feels like a beta
RockMelt is still beta and it feels like it. Things you might want to think about before you dive in include the security and privacy issues of hitching a Facebook app so tightly to your browsing history. Also, RockMelt is not based on the most recent or safest build of Chromium.
It also looks like some of RockMelt’s cloud-based services are overwhelmed at the moment. My social sidebars wouldn’t load into RockMelt on a Windows machine after a restart of the browser, and the invitation system wouldn’t find all my friends when I wanted it to.
And while Chrome plug-ins will load into RockMelt, I found some that didn’t display their content correctly. RockMelt also needs a few more networking services layered into it (like LinkedIn, perhaps, or Gmail). But Facebook and Twitter are good starting points.
I don’t know if I’ll still be using RockMelt next week, but assuming the bugs get squashed in the product and that the company can reassure users about privacy, I can’t see strong reasons to avoid this browser. It’s fast, it’s got a really great search feature, and while it is a social browser, it’s subtle about it. It’s well worth taking for a spin.
Originally posted at Rafe’s Radar
The ever-functional and increasingly popular note-taking application Evernote has been available on desktop and mobile devices for a few years, though the app for the Android OS became available only at the beginning of this year. Today, the company made some noticeable improvements to the interface and functionality of the app with version 2.0.
The first thing Evernote addressed on its Android app was the home screen, which is now cleaner and simpler to navigate. Here, you’re greeted with six main options: new note, snapshot, all notes, tags, notebooks, and search. This screen also displays sync status, when applicable. Other interface improvements include the ability to search from the top of every screen and a tab at the bottom of the screen that lets you browse notes via scrolling thumbnails. The search feature lets you create new searches, view previous ones, access saved searches and search for things near your current location; Evernote has also improved the option to pull up common searches with filters.
Evernote also aimed to making sorting and browsing easier on the device. You can now group notes by notebook, location, or month and scroll between sections. If you tap and hold on any note within the list, a variety of shortcuts become available, such as edit, info, tag, and more. In addition, the app has added a header bar for quickly switching among searches, notes, tags, and notebooks.
Perhaps one of the more compelling improvements in Evernote 2.0 for Android is the noticeably faster performance. The app accomplishes this by downloading all the data about your notes and taking advantage of Android’s background processing capabilities. This also allows any note created or edited on the device to be saved for offline access; premium users can now enjoy offline access to notebooks as well.
Other new capabilities: use the Google Search widget to search within the Evernote app; create home screen search shortcuts (as shown in the screenshot above); record audio as you type; store the app on your SD card; and share content among apps.
Originally posted at Android Atlas
Want to have a really rotten day? Lose your iPhone. It’ll make you feel sick down to the pit of your stomach. Trust me: I’ve been there.
Actually, losing anything important can be a nightmare: your car keys, your wallet, that cute guy/girl’s phone number. The thing is, those items can’t tell you where they are. Your iPhone can. All you need is the right services and apps.
I’ve rounded up three that should cover just about any lost-iPhone situation:
FoneHome and iHound
These two very similar apps run in the background, transmitting your iPhone’s GPS-tracked location at regular intervals. If your phone goes missing, you just find a Web browser, sign in to your account, and pinpoint its location on a map. You can also transmit a custom “I’m lost” message or audio alert. The difference is, FoneHome costs $1.99, whereas iHound is $3.99, plus $10.99 per year. I’ve been using the former for a few months, and it works like a charm.
The Rolls-Royce of lost-iPhone options is MobileMe–and it’s priced like one, too. Apple’s multifaceted service costs $99 annually (though you can typically buy it for around $60 from Amazon). It not only syncs all your contacts, appointments, and other stuff, but also provides the enviable Find My iPhone, which shows the phone’s location on a map (either on your PC or another iOS device running the Find My iPhone app).
Like FoneHome and iHound, it can push a custom “I’m lost” message. Unlike them, it can set a four-digit passcode (so whoever has your phone can’t access it), or even remotely wipe the phone. That kind of peace of mind might be worth the steep price.
Where’s My Phone?
This new app (99 cents) works on a more “local” level; it’s designed for people who set their phone down somewhere in their home or office and then can’t find it again. All you do is clap your hands (or make some other kind of loud noise) and the phone vibrates or plays an alert sound.
Have you found a phone-tracking app you like better than these? Tell me all about it in the comments!
Originally posted at iPhone Atlas
OSLO, Norway–Opera Software, the scrappy Norwegian browser maker, today faces arguably the biggest competitive threats of its 15-year history.
The first challenges are on personal computers. Right after Google’s Chrome burst onto the scene two years ago, Opera slipped from fourth to fifth place in browser usage worldwide. And longtime archrival Microsoft is no longer the punching bag of the browser market; its forthcoming IE9 is a serious attempt to match rivals in performance and support for new Web standards.
Second, in Opera’s other domain, Apple’s iPhone and now Google’s Android are rewriting the mobile browsing rules. Their browsers are adapted for phones more like miniature desktop computers than the small-screened, candy bar-shape models that prevailed when Opera’s mobile browsing business began.
And yet the Oslo underdog has adapted to crises before and appears to be adapting to the present changes as well.
In a series of interviews at its headquarters here, Opera executives showed they suffer no illusions about the competition. They also made a credible case that Opera, while not about to dethrone its bigger rivals, will continue to defend its turf with a profitable business.
A new mobile strategy
One cornerstone of its confidence comes from a major shift in its mobile strategy in response to a dark, unprofitable patch in the second half of 2009. Opera shifted its alliance efforts from phone companies to the powerful network operators who see their future threatened by the new generation of smartphones and services.
“We’re taking bigger bets on operators because they need us more than bigger handset operators,” said CEO Lars Boilesen. Phone makers’ expansion into operating systems, applications, and app stores threaten to demote carriers to mere “dumb pipes,” but Opera’s software can help maintain those carriers’ customer relationships.
And so far, the shift is paying off for the browser company. For one thing, Opera has more engineers to devote to the core products–Opera Mini and Opera Mobile–because the company is delivering the same branded browser to carrier partners rather than variations of an unbranded browser to phone makers. For another, the carriers pay recurring fees based on active users, not the one-time, up-front payment of phone makers.
The result: revenue from operators has increased to $9 million in the second quarter of 2010, up from about $7.1 million two quarters earlier.
Revenue from Opera’s desktop browser, which runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux and comes with a money-making search box leading to Google or other search engines, helped prop up the finances during the mobile transition. And a newer business–browsers on Net-connected TVs and set-top boxes–also is increasing.
Overall, the company’s second-quarter net income was a $3.3 million–less than a rounding error at its competitors but enough profit to keep the company in its niche.
A 15-year Opera
Opera was founded June 22, 1995, though its roots extend to a research project begun in 1994 at Telenor, Norway’s largest telecommunications company. It remains in the same Oslo building that’s housed it for years, even as its neighbors–search company Fast Search and Transfer, developer toolmaker Troll Tech, and videoconfercing specialist Tandberg–sold to Microsoft, Nokia, and Cisco Systems, respectively.
It’s very far from the U.S. software industry–geographically and culturally. Even with fierce competition from overseas rivals, several Opera employees took pride in a work-life balance at odds with the Silicon Valley ethos.
And yet it’s not only eked out a living, persisting as browser efforts from IBM, Symantec, Sun Microsystems, and Netscape fell by the wayside, it’s actually won a measure of influence.
Opera helped keep the fires of Web development burning during the dark years when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer grew dormant after winning the browser wars of the 1990s and when standards groups were fruitlessly focused on dead-end XHTML technology. It won a band of loyal users who help to promote the browser, eagerly pointing out that innovations such as tabbed browsing, a built-in search box, Web page thumbnails on the new-tab page originated at Opera. It’s secured some helpful geographic strongholds such as Russia. And its mobile browser products top the market even as the headlines go to Apple.
Partly through its standards-group work, Opera punches above its weight in the industry. Its independent support can help new technology such as Google’s WebM for video streaming or Mozilla’s Web Open Font Format get off the ground, for example. And its chief technology officer, Håkon Wium Lie, worked with Web founder Tim Berners-Lee and founded the Web formatting technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that’s now one of the hottest areas of Web design.
Perhaps surprisingly, the company now employs 700 people, and 80 percent of them are engineers. The vast majority of people don’t use Opera’s products, but those who do now number more than 140 million.
Those engineers are working on cramming features into Opera. Its new version 11 for desktop machines, though still in alpha testing, will be an important test as Opera adds extensions to customize the browser and match rivals’ hardware acceleration, according to Lars Erik Bolstad, vice president of core technology. Those programmers also are building hardware acceleration into Opera Mini and Mobile so, for example, pinch-to-zoom and scrolling work smoothly on capable phones
The competitive threats are real, though. Even as Opera hangs on to its slice of browser market, three of its competitors–Apple, Google, and Microsoft–are tech giants with powerful global brands and tremendous financial resources. The fourth, Mozilla, rose from the ashes of Netscape with Firefox. It, not Opera, is the independent browser that grew to the top alternative to the browser built into Windows.
All these competitors are pouring development funds into their browsers as the market takes on new importance. The increasing power of Web applications such as Google Docs and Facebook means customers spend ever more time working and living within the frame of a browser window.
data from Net Applications; chart by Stephen Shankland/CNET)
And Opera isn’t at the top of Web developers’ priority lists. Web standards mean compatibility isn’t as hard as it once was, but it’s still a huge problem. The deluge of new technologies, some essentially trial versions of what might become standards, make it worse.
“I always feel Opera is the Rodney Dangerfield of browsers. They get no respect,” said Brad Neuberg, who’s worked on many Web projects at Google including Google Docs and Gears before striking off to begin a start-up trying to capitalize on HTML5 and related Web technologies.
“There’s a clunkiness to it,” Neuberg added. “The technical underpinnings are amazing,” but Opera needs a user experience experts to “make it feel like a joy to use.”
On the mobile side, development is on fire with the new generation of smartphones. Even though native applications are a dominant means of tapping into network services on iOS and Android devices, mobile browsing use also is growing at a healthy rate.
Notably, iOS’s Safari and Android’s built-in browser are both based on the same open-source engine, WebKit. As notably, so is the browser in Hewlett-Packard’s WebOS for Palm phones, Samsung’s Bada mobile operating system, and the browser coming to new BlackBerry devices. WebKit has proven a unifying, empowering force in mobile browsing.
Indeed, it was WebKit that whacked Opera’s unbranded browser business.
Opera sees room for others–hardly a surprise given that about 70 percent of its revenue comes from mobile compared with about 30 percent for its desktop browser. It’s adapting its two browsers–Mini and Mobile–to keep its business humming despite the smartphone market upheaval.
First, a primer on what separates the two. Opera Mini, the company’s first mobile browser, is geared for wimpier hardware. To handle pages on a Web steadily growing more complicated, Mini uses Opera servers to read the Web pages, boil them down into a compressed state, then send them to the display vessel that is Mini. It makes money for Opera when the company customizes it to put carrier-preferred shortcuts on the “speed dial” quick-launch page–for example a Vodafone offer for two free weeks of Internet access in Egypt–and can share in resulting revenue.
Opera Mobile, in contrast, is a full-fledged browser based on the same engine that runs on the desktop version of Opera. That means it works on interactive Web applications where Opera Mini often struggles or fails. It’s available on Nokia’s Symbian operating system, among other areas, and tomorrow is set to arrive in beta form on Android.
The Android product will bring the revenue-sharing business model of the desktop browser to new mobile users, said Christen Krogh, Opera’s chief development officer. “We want because we think the consumer monetization model we’re helping bring about on mobile is going to be really lucrative,” Krogh said. Opera came out ahead when in 2005 it moved from charging for the Opera desktop browser itself to getting a fraction of online transactions such as clicking on search ads that its browser helped facilitate.
“We think that model is going to be really lucrative in mobile,” Krogh said.
Like Opera for the desktop, Opera Mobile got a turbo mode that can use the Opera servers for a speed boost when networks are strained.
“We are living in a bubble,” in first-world countries with disposable income and fast networks, said Jon S. von Tetzchner, Opera’s co-founder and until the end of last year chief executive. Opera’s browsers are designed to reach the rest of the world as well, and that is where a huge amount of growth for Internet services is taking place.
And while the smartphone revolution is real, he said, so is the growth of lesser models. Moore’s Law, broadly speaking, has enabled powerful hardware in high-end smartphones, but that’s not the only change it’s brought to the mobile market.
“Instead of something twice as powerful, you’re actually seeing a more reasonable price,” von Tetzchner said. “They cut the cost instead.” Such lower-cost handsets are often the staples in areas such as India where mobile phones, not PCs, are the dominant way people tap into the Net.
“When CPUs get faster, we want to do hardware acceleration as much as the next guy, but we also want to do the harder optimization–what do you do when the device is almost crawling?” von Tetzchner said. “From a programmer challenge point of view, that’s a much harder problem.”
And it’s still relevant in the rich part of the world, where network connections often are overtaxed even where high-speed networks have arrived. Opera Mini and Opera Mobile can also cut data usage for the large number of people without unlimited data plans.
The service is widely used; Opera just opened a new data center in Iceland to support 20 million Opera Mini users in Europe, Africa, and Asia. It’s not easy to run at scale, as browser maker Skyfire showed when its new browser application for streaming Flash to the iPhone
overwhelmed its servers.
Carriers like it the turbo service because it gives them precise visibility into statistics such as how people use the Net, for example letting them gauge how likely people are to need more lucrative higher-end data subscription plans.
“We give them precise analytics of Opera users on the network,” Boilesen said.
Also, through a 2010 acquisition of Californian mobile ad network AdMarvel, Opera has the ability to feed ads efficiently into the billions of Web pages it delivers through its servers. It’s not a lot of revenue today, but Opera expects growth.
But Opera still needs to work on its turbo mode, Boilesen said–starting with visibility.
“We have not really successfully launched turbo,” he said. “We don’t need to relaunch it, but we need to get people to try turbo on phones.”
In the big picture, being a gateway to tens of millions of people’s usage of the Web is indeed a powerful position. The company just needs to figure the best way to accommodate Web applications, avoid abuses of its privileged role, and extract money from the role most effectively.
“I think it’s interesting times for Opera,” Boilesen said. “We have something nobody else has.”
Originally posted at Deep Tech