Social browser RockMelt launches iPad browser+reading app

RockMelt, a Mountain View, Calif-based startup co-founded by Tim Howes and Eric Vishria burst on the browser scene two years ago with the idea of launching a browser optimized for modern Internet usage — social, RSS, messaging and sharing were its core tenets. And while it has snagged nearly 4 million users (of which a few hundred thousand use it daily), the company has run into a buzz saw of marketing dollars from Microsoft (s MSFT) and Google (s GOOG), who are spending millions of dollars promoting their respective browsers, Internet Explorer and Chrome. RockMelt has so far raised a total of $40 million in funding from the likes of Accel Partners, Andreessen Horowitz and Khosla Ventures

“There is no way we can compete with those marketing dollars,” says Vishria, CEO of the company. So instead, they had to think creatively and find a new opportunity. And that opportunity, he thinks is on iPad (s aapl). A recent study by JD Power points to tablet owners spending “7.5 hours per week browsing the Internet, watching videos, listening to music and reading books while on PC they spend 9.6 hours per week” doing the same thing.

The company is announcing a new iPad app, that essentially is a browser optimized around the touch and tablet experience.

“The browsing experience on the tablets essentially is the same as the desktop,” he says. Howes argues that just as the emergence of simpler visual interfaces helped personal computers get better, today we need to present a different visual metaphor for browsing. Typing a URL in the URL bar is essentially the C-prompt of the web, Howes added. The touch and visual nature of the iPad commands a more visual experience, and that is why they have built like a browser-as-a-reader that uses Pinterest-like boxes in a grid. It reminds me of Neiman Lab’s Fuego social reader.

How good is it really?

I have been using RockMelt’s new iPad app for a couple of days and while it delivers on what the company promises, it is still rough around the edges. You have an option to use the app in a non-logged in mode, but that allows you only to search and use pre-configured content packages. These packages include topics such as Design, Food, Sports and, of course, technology news. There are many sources within these packages. And you can search by typing your search query just as you do in Chrome or Safari.

However, RockMelt is more useful when you are logged into the browser using either your Twitter or Facebook account. I am a little annoyed by the amount of information RockMelt wants from Facebook and it makes me queasy. However, if you sign in, you are presented a lot of content that is shared by people who are in your social graph.

The content, which appears like a grid, comes with a bunch of what the company calls, emoti-actions such as Like, Want, LOL, WTF and so on. You can also share the stories via Twitter and Facebook. When you click on an article, it pops up in a plain white “reader” window much like it does on Flipboard or when you hit “Reader View” on Safari browser. The reading experience is pretty damn good, except if you are a publisher, then you are out of luck — Rockmelt totally strips out all ads. I feel the product needs to be smoother and they need to eliminate rough edges. Nevertheless, it is worth a try.

Interestingly, they have snuck in the follower-following model into their browser and it seems that they are building their own “interest graph” around content. I think it is a smart move. Also, in the beta version of the software I saw a way for promoted content to be injected into the grid — a very natural and sound way of attracting advertising dollars.

Web vs. the apps

When I asked Vishria if they were now competing with Flipboard, he said no: “Flipboard is targeting a more magazine style experience.” For me, however, they are pretty much in the same bucket because they are going after the attention we accord to reading time.

Vishria argues that since the web reading experience and our journeys on the web are highly individual and personal, that is one of the reasons why people should use RockMelt. It keeps traditional browsing behavior in place, while offering folks a new way to visually surf the ever-increasing amount on the Internet.

Fair point. Now the big challenge for Vishria and Howes is to find millions of people who are interested in using their browser-app.