Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What Rockmelt tells us about innovation

Here's an interesting question.  Why is there so much innovation around internet browsing?  Why is it that we have Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chromium, Safari, and now RockMelt, and sure to be others right around the corner?  Why so much innovation in viewing web content?  What does innovation in the browser space tell us about innovation in general?

After all, it's not like we haven't been here before.  Netscape was the original internet browser, and worked reasonably well, but was overwhelmed by Microsoft when it decided to get serious about browsers and incorporate a browser in its operating system.  Firefox and other open source browsers were a response to IE when the open source market really took off, and now Firefox represents a large proportion of the browser marketplace.  Google entered with Chromium, but really hasn't had the impact I'm sure they wanted.  It will take firms like Rockmelt and others to extend the Chromium platform and break away from the Google mothership before people get too invested.  Why create another Internet Explorer monopoly tied to Google rather than Microsoft?

But that's all history.  The real question is - why is there so much innovation in what should be a relatively uninteresting space?  Most browsers are free or exceptionally inexpensive, so the return on the development is relatively low.  Developing a new browser isn't necessarily difficult, since the builds for Firefox and Chromium are available as open source projects, but I suspect maintaining a good code base and incorporating the changes necessary over time for the browser is difficult.  Customers are certain to be demanding as the browser - whichever type or version - is becoming the real operating system of work within computing, especially mobile computing and work in the cloud. Clearly the number of potential customers acts as a driver for new development in the browser space. Let's examine the browser market and see what it portends for innovators.

Looking forward:  Trend Spotting and Scenario Planning.

If you are interested in building a browser, you have to compete with at least three established entities:  Microsoft's IE, Firefox and Safari.  However, you also have to understand the incredible changes that are occuring in the IT space.  People are using the web, and accessing the web, from everywhere and every device.  That means the browser has to do more, and in many cases do less, on a wide range of devices.  Trends suggest this will only increase as we access the web from our phones, mobile devices and eventually our cars.  Why isn't there a browser built into my car now?  Certainly there will be shortly.  These trends tell us that browsers need to be more flexible, lighter weight and able to run on a number of platforms. However, at the same time they need to be able to connect to and run social media applications that are growing and becoming more complex.  Rockmelt's theory is that the browser is the social media operating system, and Rockmelt is built specifically to integrate with Facebook and other social media applications.

The nice aspect of the browser space is that there is a lot of change, and more than likely, a number of secondary market segments.  Browsers for cars or vehicles, browsers for mobile devices, browsers for kiosks and stand alone computing centers.  Browsers for people who are active social media users, browsers for people in corporations that can't connect to social media applications.  There are a significant number of market niches and it will be interesting to see who identifies the critical needs in each niche and solves those needs successfully.

Which brings us to:  Customer Needs.

Innovation is about solving a customer need in a new and interesting way, or solving a need customers weren't aware of.  Rockmelt is trying to do both - improve the browser and reduce the "back and forth" between tabs or screens.  Can Rockmelt reduce the overhead associated with your contacts, your friends and your social media interaction within the browser?  Will that integration be important to you?  That will be the $100 million dollar question.  When does the browser become more than an operating system component?  What customer needs are the most important?  For example, Safari on the iPhone doesn't support Flash.  Will that eventually hamper the iPhone as a platform, or will new applications arise to fill the void left by the absence of Flash on the iPhone?  Will Android or other platforms and browsers win?  What are the important customer needs?

I'd argue that we need a better lightweight browser on the mobile devices that loads quickly but is robust enough to handle most sites that provide high data throughput and high picture resolution or video streaming.  But we also need browsers that reduce the back and forth, toing and froing across tabs. 

Once Rockmelt, Safari and Firefox developers spot new trends and understand new customer needs, they can generate ideas for new products and then develop those new browsers.  Once the development is near completion, they can then test those browsers.  And here, the browser developers have an advantage - easy beta testing.

Prototyping and Piloting
This is something that Google learned a long time ago:  create a team of believers willing to try out the code, and make it dead simple for them to use it and give feedback.  Of course it helps Google that most of their code doesn't even need to be installed.  Rockmelt will need to be installed on your machine, but you have the opportunity to try it out in a limited beta.  This rapid prototyping and piloting, combined with customer feedback, means Rockmelt can distribute the testing and final production of the browser and gain valuable feedback quickly.

Will Rockmelt succeed?  Have they spotted a need in the browser space that must be filled?  It's pretty clear that the browser is becoming the operating system interface rather than just a component.  Does Rockmelt effectively combine the operating system nature of the browser with tight and seamless integration to social media?  Is that valuable to a large number of consumers?

We get to watch and witness the attempt to create a new browser and document a case study on innovation.  Rockmelt represents all of the factors necessary for innovation:
  • A committed team of individuals
  • Who have spotted what they believe is a relevant, important need
  • Aligned with industry and societal trends
  • Developing ideas
  • Quickly prototyping and piloting the product with customers
  • Gaining feedback and insights
  • Preparing the final packaging
The question remains - is what Rockmelt offers different enough, and valuable enough, and easy enough to acquire and use that it will make a big difference in the browser space?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:20 AM

5 Comments:

Anonymous Neil said...

Good article. The OS is merely a planet in which all the software orbits. The browser allows all the cool stuff to happen. Steam have incorporated game playing while still staying connected to friends. When the desktop becomes a living thing and allows more than just shortcuts will be where it will take over again. If the desktop 'was' the browser and allowed unlimited customisations then Windows might be able to kill off the browser war forever. Add into that the cloud, eg Google docs and we might never have to leave the desktop again.

I am trying Rockmelt and what they are trying to do is aplaudible and they've done a pretty good job. But it needs to encompass the whole 'in front of the computer' experience, not just surf the net while you read and comment on your friends status updates.

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Blogger Charles Klim said...

I'm user of Rockmelt and this is a great browser. It was fun to see how this browser keep you connected with facebook.
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