The Amazon Silk Browser — Privacy and the Technology

by Krishna on September 30, 2011

So, one of the new pieces with Amazon’s tablet is the “cloud-accelerated split browser” named Amazon Silk. According to the FAQ on the Amazon site, this is what is supposed to happen when you use an Amazon Silk browser in Kindle Fire:

With Amazon Silk, most of the heavy-lifting is shifted from the processor on your device to our powerful AWS servers. Access to such lightning fast CPUs, expansive memory, and huge network connections allows the performance of Amazon Silk to transcend the capabilities of your local device. Amazon Silk isn’t just about massive computing power, however. Because much of the intelligence of the browser is in the cloud, a number of performance enhancements become possible, including squeezing the utmost throughput out of your “last mile” connection, smart caching both on your device and on our servers, and on-the-fly content optimizations. In addition, Amazon Silk has the ability to learn about traffic patterns on individual sites over time, allowing it to begin fetching the next page that users may wish to visit.

Many people, rightfully IMO, have focused on the privacy implications of the browser, as Amazon will know what your browsing habits are, and can tailor its recommendations to you accordingly. Google’s success with AdWords has been based on searches done by the user and by the content of the websites that a user visits. For most practical purposes, many users stay logged into Google and so their actions can be tracked. But there are loopholes. Users can use other browsers and search engines, they may be logged out of Google, some sites may not run AdWords, users may turn off ads. The last is mostly done by technology-savvy users who are usually richer than the average population.

But in Amazon’s world, every byte that you send or receive will go through Amazon’s servers. Given that the Kindle Fire is a modified Android tablet, it may be possible to install a different browser, though if web communication is integrated at a lower level, I am not sure if that will avoid this. What all this means is that Amazon can construct a more vivid picture of a user’s identity than Google can, and what is more, they already have the goods to sell that user from their own inventory! This is essentially a form of vertical integration in the online space.

If Amazon actually succeeds in what it is trying to do, i.e., effective targeted selling driven by knowledge and pushed by well-timed discounts, it could significantly alter the landscape of online marketing. As Amazon grabs a greater chunk of online revenue, more vendors will try to sell on Amazon. Amazon may push for greater commissions, thus squeezing the marketing dollars for ad delivery players, predominantly Google at this time.

Now, to the technology for a moment. The increasing popularity of compressors and minifiers is evidence that you can achieve significant performance boosts with reducing the data pumped to the client’s machine. Also the use of Content Delivery Networks to improve the speed of access to a web resource by keeping it physically close to the requester. Dead simple, but the unfortunate fact is that many programmers do not know or use these techniques (for a variety of reasons). So why not do it for them?

It is also obvious that there are millions of websites and blogs that are rarely or never updated. Even popular ones as their creator loses interest. So, it is possible for an infrastructure-rich company like Amazon to totally optimize and cache the entire website. And even frequently updated sites have portions that have been static for years. How many times does anyone go and edit a post made 2 years ago, for example? So there is a lot of room there.

And as Coach Wei explains here, many popular web pages require “sophisticated browser processing”. There is a reason why you have IE 9, Chrome 14, and Firefox 7 today, because there is a lot more going on in web pages. If you let your browser in your mobile tablet do this work, not only will it be slower, but also it drains your battery so much faster. The Kindle showed how you can let your e‑reader go for a month without a charge. Amazon is now trying to bring that to the tablet, with a different technology, of course.

I suppose at some point, the other browser vendors are going to try something like this soon. Google had some ideas in this regard, but they never went the full length. Now would be a good time. So should Microsoft and perhaps Apple. Apple’s problem is that they don’t have the cloud infrastructure and is (apparently) using Windows Azure and Amazon Services (!). So it needs to be seen what Apple’s response is.

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