Amazon's new Silk redefines browser tech

Amazon has created a new browser for the Kindle Fire tablet, one with a cloud-based architecture

While the Kindle Fire tablet consumed much of the focus at Amazon's launch event Wednesday in New York, the company also showed off a bit of potentially radical software technology as well, namely the new browser for the Fire, called Silk.

Silk is different from other browsers because it can be configured to let Amazon's cloud service do much of the work assembling complex Web pages. The result is that users may experience much faster load times for Web pages, compared to other mobile devices, according to the company.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced Silk during his keynote after unveiling the company's US$199 Kindle Fire tablet, which will be available Nov. 15.

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During the introduction, Bezos noted that most modern Web pages, such as Amazon's own or CNN's, are complex creations, with multiple photos, animations, and complex scripts and mark-up code. The CNN home page, for instance, is built by the browser from 53 static images, 39 dynamic images, three Flash files, 30 JavaScript files from seven different domains, 29 HTML files and seven CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) files."

"The modern Web has become a complicated place," Bezos said. As a result, "It is difficult -- challenging -- for mobile devices to display modern Web pages rapidly."

To speed page rendering on the Kindle Fire, Silk uses a "split browser" approach, Bezos said. "It partially lives in EC2 and it partially lives on Kindle Fire."

All the user's Web page requests will be sent through a service in the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) for processing. The service will act as a caching service, as well as a staging area where the more complex bits of Web pages can be pre-processed before being redirected to the user's browser.

EC2 has, "for all practical purposes, unlimited computational power and unlimited bandwidth," Bezos said.

Silk is fully functional as a stand-alone browser, explained Jon Jenkins, director of platform analysis at Amazon.com, at a demonstration booth after the event. It supports HTML5, JavaScript, CSS and associated next-generation Web standards. It also supports Flash. Amazon built the software from the ground up, using the WebKit open-source browser engine.

All the user's requests, however, are directed to the EC2 service, which then fetches the pages from the source and optimizes the content for the platform. Complex parts of JavaScript may be pre-processed and images may be downsized to a more manageable size. Many common but rarely updated elements of a popular Web page are served directly from the EC2 cache, such as the CNN.com logo.

"EC2 knows that logo hasn't changed for months, so it doesn't wait until getting the HTML file back before pushing that logo back to you," Jenkins said.

The site's original content, as well as content personalized for each user, will be requested from the content provider.

The service also uses content compression techniques, such as re-encoding video and images before sending them to a device. The service also keeps connections constantly open to popular websites, which reduces the time needed to negotiate connections on a one-to-one basis.

Amazon also sped operations by doing away with the HTTP protocol, which is normally used to convey Web pages from the server to the user. The HTTP protocol "is not the most efficient protocol of the modern Web," Jenkins said. "It doesn't multiplex content well -- it is hard to get a bidirectional flow of content."

As an alternative, Silk uses a variant of the Google SPDY protocol. HTTP is still used between the content provider and the EC2.

The browser will determine whether to download the mobile or the static version of any given website, based on the capabilities of the hardware, as well as the richness of the site itself. "It learns effectively as you're browsing to get the best possible version of the content to you," Jenkins said. This works particularly well on popular sites, where many of the common elements can be cached.

Of course, the fact that all the user's Web browsing is being directed through Amazon will raise the interest of privacy advocates, who might see the technology as invasive. Jenkins denied that Amazon would be doing any personal traffic analysis, though. "There is no personal information stored on the EC2 at all," Jenkins said. He also noted that it is possible for users to turn off the EC2 service altogether and use the browser in a standard way.

The company also spent a lot of time making sure that one user would not accidentally be served another user's content when checking popular sites such as Facebook. "Some of the earlier efforts that other companies made at this did result in that. So we thought very very carefully about that. That was just unacceptable as an outcome."

Amazon's approach to the tablet is an "interesting spin" in a cluttered market, one analyst said.

"While the split browser architecture is not new, Opera having been a player for a couple of years, 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," noted Al Hilwa, IDC analyst for applications development software. "In one fell swoop Amazon harnesses its commanding lead in cloud services, the content richness of a leading online retailer and its successful Kindle business strategy to deliver what might become one of the most effective antidotes to the mobile bandwidth crunch."

The Fire uses the Gingerbread build of Android with a heavily customized interface. Amazon had no immediate plans to port Silk for other platforms, Jenkins said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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Joab Jackson

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