Explore the social Web with Rockmelt’s new look

Rockmelt is an iOS app from the company of the same name. It’s recently launched its third major revision, and is currently highlighted in the New & Noteworthy section of the App Store front page. It’s a free download.

Rockmelt has been through a few changes over the years. Originally taking the form of a Chromium-based Web browser for computers with a strong focus on social network integration, it has since evolved into a content discovery platform accessible through any browser. The Web-based component of Rockmelt’s service is currently invite-only, but the iOS app is available for anyone to sign into and use.

Upon starting Rockmelt for the first time, you’re prompted to provide at least five areas of interest that you would like to see in your “home stream.” The topics on offer are fairly diverse, but the requirement to choose at least five is odd — some users may only be interested in content from two or three of the available “channels” and yet are forced into picking several more. Presumably this is to allow users to expose themselves to a wider variety of available content, but it still seems a little unnecessary.

Once into the app proper, the user is given a brief guided tour of the interface and how to go about using the service. You’re initially presented with your home stream, the home of all the content you indicated you were interested in during signup. Tapping on an individual story’s “tile” allows you to view the full story, with many sites supporting a distraction-free (and often ad-free) “reader” view for easy viewing on mobile devices. Alternatively, stories can be saved to read later simply by swiping them off the right of the screen — these can later be retrieved by pulling out a “drawer” from the right side of the screen. Articles can also be searched if there is a specific thing the user is looking for.

As well as the home stream, users may also browse content by what is popular and what is filed under various categories — even those they didn’t initially sign up for. A “friends’ activity” stream also allows quick and easy access to what friends have been posting on Twitter and Facebook (assuming the user has connected these services to the app — Facebook connectivity requires a lot of permissions, which may prove offputting to some users) and there are individual streams for “reactions” to various articles.

These “reactions” provide one of the main means through which users can interact with and share articles using Rockmelt. Tapping a “share” button in the lower-right of the screen allows the user to pick one of six preset reactions (“like,” “lol,” “want,” “aww,” “wtf?” and “hmm”) or to post a comment as their reaction. These reactions will be visible to friends using Rockmelt, and also shared to Facebook’s Activity Feed if the user has connected their account to the social network. Alternatively, if users wish to share in a more traditional manner, links can be simply shared using email, SMS/iMessage, Twitter or Facebook.

Rockmelt is a great-looking app, with a clean interface and slick animations. It’s also an interesting way to browse the best of the Web in a social manner, but like many services of its type it raises a few concerns — mainly the fact that while there are a good variety of outlets represented in the various topic feeds, they are all “big name” sites. This initially appears to leave smaller content providers or individual bloggers somewhat out in the cold if people decide to use Rockmelt as their means of content discovery rather than the open Web. Rockmelt does provide the facility to “follow” specific sites not included in the default lineup, but again this is a curated list that is dependent on the sites actually being added to the service in the first place.

However, all is not lost for these content providers, because Rockmelt also features support for RSS feeds, though it’s not made particularly obvious how to access this at first glance. Searching for content that is not available in the curated lists automatically opens a browser window with a Google search for that content — and when viewing a site with an RSS feed (or feeds), an “add” button becomes available at the top of the screen. From here, the feeds can be followed and added to Rockmelt in the normal manner. It’s good that this feature is present, but it needs to be made considerably more obvious to convince power users who like to take full control of their feeds to feel confident in adopting Rockmelt.

Rockmelt has undergone some significant changes since its inception, but its new format as a content discovery platform is a good direction for the company to go in. The iOS app works very well at present, and if the Web-based service is able to provide a similarly good experience, it could well provide a suitable alternative to the soon-to-close Google Reader for many users.

You can follow Rockmelt’s progress with AppData, our tracking service for mobile and social apps and developers.