If you asked me for an honest assessment of my relationship with my iPad, I’d have to admit, at this point, that a bit of the luster is gone. It’s still my go-to device for chipping away at my ever-daunting Instapaper queue (as Sisyphean a task as we have in the 21st century), but most of the time I’m just poking at the thing while sitting on the couch watching TV, mindlessly tapping the handful of links on my bookmarks toolbar, even though I know there’s no new content to be found at any of them. The new Rockmelt for the iPad is designed to do away with that type of zombie browsing for good, by giving users a shotgun blast of content right from the moment they open the app.
The big idea behind Rockmelt’s desktop browser, which was first released in 2010, was this: In an age of social media, why not build sharing right into the browser? That insight, along with a few clever design touches, allowed Rockmelt to garner a decent-sized user base for an upstart fighting against some well-entrenched Goliaths. But for many, the nominal benefits of a more socially minded browser weren’t enough to pull them away from their preferred software. Browser allegiances run deep. With Rockmelt’s new iPad app, though, the differences from competitors like Safari and Chrome are anything but nominal. While those apps enable you to go out and find cool content, Rockmelt wants to do the finding for you.
It’s a difference that’s clear from the moment you start the app. Rather than showing you a big, empty window--or just whatever site you were looking at the last time you used it--Rockmelt offers up a visual stream of personalized content, culled from friends on Facebook and Twitter, RSS subscriptions, and sites that fall into your designated categories of interest. Posts, articles, images, and the rest take the form of big, tappable tiles in two endless columns--an infinitely scrolling stream of content. Touch one of the items, and, when possible, it pops open in a stripped-down reader view. As you’re checking out that content, you can jump to a full view of the website it’s hosted on, follow links, or just dip back to your stream to find something else to look at.
Overall, it’s a fairly radical take on what a tablet browser should be, one that starts with the go-anywhere, find-anything utility of the browsers we’re familiar with and grafts a visual, content-curation element on top of it all. In this sense, the new Rockmelt is sort of like a mash-up of Pulse, Flipboard, and Safari--a browser that’s also a news reader, with a dash of social network to round it out. And while that could certainly result in an unwieldy Frankenbrowser of a product, it also stands a chance at cracking that central tablet problem of not really knowing what to look at on the Internet.
Part of that problem stems from the fact that we browse for different reasons on our mobile devices. On our laptops, we get things done. On our phones, we look things up--the address of a restaurant we’re going to or the name of the movie that, we’re pretty sure, stars Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney, and Ving Rhames. But tablets are less about getting things done or finding facts; the familiar refrain is that they’re best suited for content consumption. By doing things differently from desktop browsers, Rockmelt’s trying to shift the focus back to that content.
As Eric Vishria, one of Rockmelt’s founders explains it, what we’ve seen so far with mobile browsers is "a pretty uninspired translation of the [desktop] browser experience." And it’s true: For the most part, the tablet browsers we’ve seen thus far have been little more than scaled-back versions of the software we use on our desktops, handicapped not only by the technical limitations of our mobile devices but in large part by user experiences that were made for trackpads and keyboards, not touch screens. Rockmelt was designed to be better in some of these very basic areas of usability, as well.
Tablet browsing presents some routine frustrations. The new Rockmelt app tries to do away with "the cumbersomeness of it all," as co-founder and CTO Tim Howes describes it. That means giving users all sorts of ways to find stuff to look at without ever having to deal with the URL bar or the on-screen keyboard. But it also manifests itself in commonsense UX touches like using gestures, rather than buttons, for navigation. To jump back to your stream from an individual item, for example, just do a two-finger pinch on the screen. It makes you wonder why Safari insists you tap its tiny little back button--a cruelly small bullseye when you consider that the whole thing you’re holding is essentially a touch screen.
Some might not like the browser’s insistence on pushing content through reader view--just like when you use an RSS reader, you’re definitely losing something when you’re yanking content from sundry sites and homogenizing it into a single app’s layout--but the founders told me that that decision, too, was based on improving the user experience. Unsurprisingly, pages load way faster in reader view, so you’re spending more time consuming and less waiting. "Honestly, the biggest reason we did it is for speed," Howes explained. "The speed of a page loading versus the speed of a reader view coming up--there’s no comparison."
Of course, the greater danger here is losing some of the serendipity and diversity that makes the Internet so great. By giving users a highly personalized feed--Howes refers to the stream as "my Internet"--you risk losing some of the expansive awesomeness of the web, and there’s a chance that your recommended content ends up burying all the stuff you never really knew was out there. In this respect, there are some places in which Rockmelt’s content curation seems a bit too overbearing. Searching for, say, "Obama," queries your personal feed by default; you have to tap one of the first results to do a full Google search, which is probably what you wanted in the first place.
Still, it’s a worthwhile experiment. If Rockmelt’s desktop browser tried to ride the social wave, the iPad app, on a very basic level, is seizing another trend: a shift toward more visual interfaces across the board. Explaining the state of affairs here, Vishria took stock of the web’s hottest properties: "You have photos on Facebook, you have Instagram, you have Pinterest, you have Tumblr, you have Fab," he said. "They have one thing in common: They’re extremely visual." On a fundamental level, Rockmelt is trying to bring the ease and speed of these visual experiences to browsing. That’s something you do at the risk of upsetting some deeply ingrained ideas about what the browser is--an unfiltered, unmediated tool for exploring the web--but I think when it comes down to it, I might take a little mediation if it means I don’t have to use that damn on-screen keyboard.
Grab the iPad app for free in the iTunes App Store.
[Homepage Image: Texture via Shutterstock]