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Amazon’s Cloud Gives Its New Browser an Unfair Edge

The Silk browser—developed for Amazon’s Kindle Fire—could make for the fastest mobile browsing experience yet.
October 3, 2011

Among the features announced with Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet is an unexpected and innovative new piece of software: a Web browser called Amazon Silk that taps into Amazon’s enormous cloud infrastructure to speed up the delivery of content to a mobile device.

Browsing the Web on a smart phone or tablet can often be a frustrating experience, even when using the latest device over a relatively fast connection. This is because websites are increasingly complex, and because, by and large, they are still primarily designed for more powerful computers and broadband wired connections.

“The modern Web has become a complicated place,” said Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos during the launch of the Kindle Fire on Wednesday. He pointed out that a typical modern Web page has to load a huge amount of information besides the main content of the page: images, Flash animations, third-party ads, and other things.

Speed was the main goal for Silk, says Jon Jenkins, director of the project. “The thing that is more important to users than anything else is perceived page load time,” he says. “That’s what we’ve really targeted here.”

Silk will load Web pages more quickly because Amazon’s cloud service will be used to keep a copy of commonly used images, animations, and ads, and deliver them faster than a website itself can. Amazon will also try to predict which page on a site a user may want to go to and then preload that page before he or she clicks.

Modern browsers already use a “cache” to store assets such as logos, pictures, and ads, so that they don’t have to be requested each time a page is revisited. With Silk, Amazon’s cloud services acts as an effectively infinite cache. Amazon can store not only elements of pages that the user has visited before, but elements that other Amazon users have visited before. It can store all those elements and deliver them via its own high-speed network. Amazon will also track the aggregate behavior of users to make intelligent guesses about which pages a user might want to load next.

Though many sites offer a pared-down mobile version, one out of three people choose to view the full site anyway, says Joshua Bixby, president of Strangeloop, a company that optimizes websites. The killer is that these people don’t adjust their expectation of how fast a site should be, Bixby says. They still expect it to load within seconds.

Bixby notes that tablets worsen the problem. They often replace a PC or laptop for a user, but when running on crowded Wi-Fi network, or over 3G, they suffer the same speed problems as a smart phone.

Amazon Silk extends ideas that have been pioneered by other companies. For several years, Opera has offered browsers for mobile devices that shift heavy-duty processing away from the device, delivering modified versions of websites that a mobile device can display more quickly. One distinction is that, even if Kindle Fire loses its connection to Amazon’s cloud, the Silk browser will still function, albeit more slowly. Also, Silk will not alter the pages it delivers. “Other browsers are altering content to the degree that it’s not like the original,” Jenkins says.  For Silk, he adds, “the browser is both on the device and in the cloud.”

Other companies have also realized that better caching can speed up mobile browsing. Bixby’s Strangeloop launched a product earlier this month called Mobile Site Optimizer that, among other things, creates a better cache for delivering Web pages to mobile devices. But the cache doesn’t have Amazon’s cloud behind it, and it only works for websites that are customers of Strangeloop.

“What an inspired idea this cloud-backed mobile browser is for Amazon,” says Al Hilwa, program director for application development software research for the market intelligence firm IDC. “I find the overall strategy to be an interesting spin on the me-too Android software we have seen so far, and possibly a game changer.”

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