Rockmelt, the technology adoption model, and Facebook’s spare internet

Regardless of how good it is, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to make snide remarks about Rockmelt. After all, on the surface it looks a lot like some people spent two years building a browser instead of just bashing out a Chrome extension over a wet weekend.

It probably does some more stuff. I don’t know for sure because artificial scarcity is cool, apparently, so the “invitation” is still in the post*. I may in fact never know for sure, because I’m not wild about Facebook sign-in as a prerequisite for anything.

From the video, and some initial reviews, my early reaction was: I have a browser, I have a Twitter client; what on earth is this for?

The answer, of course, is “not me”.

Rockmelt is, in a way, quite audacious. Oh, sure, on launch day it’s Bay Area bar-chat for the kids with no lenses in their retro specs and trousers that give you deep-vein thrombosis, but it’s not really about them.

Likewise, Facebook just launched Google Wave, or something. And all the tech snobbery and scorn packed into describing it that way is irrelevant next to what they’re doing with their platform.

A while ago in the Guardian, John Lanchester dusted off the idiom that “technology is stuff that doesn’t work yet”. The rest of the article would be quite interesting if it wasn’t largely about MySpace, and he’s sort of got a point. If you bolt on the sentiment that risk-averse businessmen like things that work, you’ve got the essence of Crossing the Chasm.

Products for the mainstream market don’t look much like technology.

Think for a second about early (1980s ish) hi-fi systems, with all the knobs and fiddly bits, their ostentatious technophile aesthetic. Then consider their sleeker and less (or at least less conspicuously) functional successors in the 1990s. The theory goes that innovators and early adopters like technology, it’s a hobby in itself. The rest of the humans seem to like magic boxes with very few buttons that make stuff happen and never trouble them about why.

Personally, I consider Apple’s maddening insistence that iTunes is an acceptable way to move files around to be more or less morally unacceptable. Most people couldn’t care less.

Hence Rockmelt, and hence Facebook’s continued growth.

Rockmelt looks pointless to me, because I aggregate my social gubbins with Digsby, or use TweetDeck. But my use case is different and so are my enthusiasms.

If I want to share photos, I’ll use Flickr – but Facebook has photo sharing. If I want a short broadcast message, I’ll use Twitter – Facebook has status updates. If I want to sell something with relatively little hassle, there’s eBay – or Facebook marketplace. YouTube – check, FB Video. Email – messaging. Calendaring apps, yeah there are loads, or FB Events. What if I want to host a simple web page? Sure, they’ve got pages. Also Notes for blogging, and more games than I can count.

This stuff is right there, where millions and millions of users are already, and for what they need it just works. It’s not about me, because I’m not in the big juicy area under the curve.

It’s what 1990s portal sites could never have dreamed of achieving. Facebook is AOL on speed, crack, and some designer drugs it had specially imported from the future. It’s a n00b-friendly gateway to the internet that just happens to serve up all the things you want to do online, right where you are. Oh, and everybody else is there too.

The price of having all this and the social graph too is that you have all of this, and the social graph too. But plenty of folks have more incisive things to say than me about the whole privacy shebang, and it’s not really what I’m talking about.

Facebook is maintaining a vast, and fairly fully-featured training-wheels internet. And it makes up a large proportion of the online experience for a lot of people***. It’s the entire web (2.0?) experience for the early and late majority. And sure, no individual bit of it is quite as slick or as fully-realised as something like Flickr (which wows me a bit every time I use it. Those guys are good at the web), but it doesn’t have to be. It has to be unobtrusively good enough for the regular humans. It has to not feel like technology.

This is what Rockmelt sort of is. You’re online, you want something nebulously social, and you don’t want to faff about with, say, Twitter clients. Wow! There it is on a really distracting sidebar, right in your browser. No effort!

Yeah – fish nor fowl, much?

It might work, I guess. There may be a demographic who want their social web experience more simply than tech tinkering, and who aren’t just getting it from Facebook (or, for that matter, mobile devices). But I’d be surprised. Rockmelt feels like an attempt to grab a slice of Facebook-style “Look! It’s right here, where you already are!”, but it’s still asking the mature market to install a new browser.

Presumably this is where that Facebook sign-in predicate comes in handy, though it’ll take some potent awareness marketing to make it fly.

Meanwhile, Facebook quietly has the entire rest of the internet as a product management resource, and can continue to give most of the people most of what they want. Something that has not gone un-noticed in its potential to look a little sinister. But heck, they might even make Google Wave popular.



*This was true last week when I drafted this post. I got an invite subsequently, hence the screenshot.

**MS Paint is no fun any more. It’s actually good in Windows 7. Farewell ironically-shonky diagrams.

*** It’s also behind a single sign-in, lending a veneer of confidence, and partially solving the problem of usernames being crummy unique identifiers. I’ll be blogging about that at some point.