Reporting from San Francisco — Seventeen years ago, Marc Andreessen developed the Netscape browser that ushered millions of people onto the Internet for the first time.
Now a top Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Andreessen is backing an ambitious new Internet browser tailored for the way 2 billion people connect to one another as they surf the Web.
On Monday, Andreessen is expected to unveil RockMelt, a browser that incorporates popular social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter so users can take their friends with them as they wander the Web.
The browser also keeps tabs on users' favorite websites, alerting them when new content pops up, and makes it easier to flip through search results. Users can log in to the browser from anywhere so they can always have the same experience.
Andreessen said that RockMelt would unleash a new wave of innovation, intensifying competition in the already heated browser market.
"The market is ripe for new ideas and better products," said Andreessen, whose Netscape lost the browser wars of the 1990s to Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer. "What's exciting is how dynamic the market has become. Nearly 500 million people have changed browsers in the last three years. Back when I was working on the browser, there weren't that many people on the Internet."
Mozilla's Firefox rekindled the browser wars in 2004. The innovative product was embraced by a passionate grassroots community, prompting Internet Explorer and Apple Inc.'s Safari to roll out improved versions of their browsers and Google Inc. to introduce its own browser, Chrome. Whereas Microsoft used to control more than 90% of the market, it now has 59%, losing users to Firefox, which has 23%, and Chrome, with 9% of the market, according to data tracker Net Applications.
The renewed focus on the browser not only gave consumers speedier, more secure browsers, but it also reflected a broader shift in computer use from the desktop to the Web.
As people spend more time on the Web, the browser has arguably become the most important piece of software installed on a computer. Tech titans such as Apple, Google and Microsoft have invested heavily in their browsers in recent years. With the rise of Facebook and the new age of social networking, analysts expect browsers to become more social too.
This is not the first time a browser has tried to tap into the increasingly social nature of the Internet. Firefox offers Facebook extensions that connect users to their friends. And Flock Inc. pioneered the social browser category five years ago, placing an early and prescient bet that the way people connect to each other online would change how they connect to the Web, drawing interest from investors including Andreessen.
Flock has focused on building its browser rather than on marketing it, Chief Executive Shawn Hardin said.
"It has been a challenge for us: How to go from 20 million downloads to 200 million downloads," Hardin said.
Gartner Inc. analyst Ray Valdes says no matter how fleet-footed and innovative, the new RockMelt browser will face the same hurdle as others: getting people to try it. New browsers face a "very difficult software distribution challenge," said John Lilly, the outgoing chief executive of Mozilla.
Analysts and others have not yet test driven RockMelt, which has been developed in secret.
"It's a little hard for us to speculate about what it is, how it might be received by users and ultimately whether or not it serves users' best interests and privacy concerns well," Lilly said.
But the trend that RockMelt represents is clear, he added: "We expect every browser to build in more social capabilities over time."
Andreessen, who sits on Facebook's board, said he expects RockMelt to harness the word-of-mouth power of social networking to get in front of consumers, who are more willing than ever to switch browsers. He also says the 2-year-old company co-founded by Eric Vishria and Tim Howes — both former executives of Opsware Inc., a company that Andreessen sold to Hewlett-Packard Co. in 2007 for $1.6 billion — has the technical experience and vision to stay ahead of competitors.
Whether RockMelt wins over consumers in the process is another question. Jesse Ehman, 25, of Los Angeles got an early invitation to try out RockMelt because he was part of a small production team that made a video to teach people how to use it. He said he likes that he can just boot up RockMelt and interact with his Facebook friends from a narrow left-hand strip or get updates from his favorite websites on the right-hand side.
"I just fell in love with it. I use it every day now," Ehman said. "It keeps all of my important information in one spot."