Amazon launches Silk browser tech for Kindle Fire

Amazon's recently-announced Kindle Fire tablet - which, sadly, won't be coming to the UK for a little while yet - hides a surprise secondary announcement from the company: a new web browser design which aims to make its cloud platform a household name.

Dubbed Amazon Silk, the company describes its new browser as being fundamentally split in twain: while there's a client app which sits on the end-user's device, there's also a server-side component running on Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud, the massive server farm that forms a central part of the Amazon Web Services offering.

"Kindle Fire introduces a revolutionary new web browser called Amazon Silk," Amazon's Jeff Bezos explained at the Kindle Fire launch event. "We refactored and rebuilt the browser software stack and now push pieces of the computation into the AWS cloud. When you use Silk - without thinking about it or doing anything explicit - you're calling on the raw computational horsepower of Amazon EC2 to accelerate your web browsing."

It's as simple as that: simple pages are rendered directly on the client device using the dual-core ARM-based processor, while complex content is pushed out to an EC2 instance to be rendered into a more cut-price-tablet-friendly format before delivery.

It also gives those running parts of their websites on Amazon's cloud platform a key advantage: while third-party content will need to be retrieved from a remote server for processing on EC2, content held directly on the Amazon Web Services servers is right there. The result: a faster response time for Silk users.

Many large sites already farm out chunks of content to AWS, commonly using the company's low-cost high-bandwidth servers to host images, adverts, or large chunks of JavaScript. Doing so means less load on their local servers, and lower bandwidth bills at the end of the month.

By introducing a new, dual-aspect browser which also resides - at least partially - on the same servers, Amazon is offering yet another advantage to hosting on AWS. While that advantage is currently slight - Amazon Silk is only available on the Kindle Fire tablet, which is only available to US customers at present - it will likely expand as Amazon pushes the technology out to other devices.

Although Silk takes the concept further than most, it's not the first browser to think of farming some of the heavy lifting out to remote servers. Opera Mobile, a Java-based web browser for featurephones, has used Opera servers to compress, resize, and otherwise optimise JPEG images since launch as a way of speeding up page loads on slow data connections and reducing the cost on a per-megabyte service.

Similar services exist for getting Flash content onto Apple's iOS-based devices, using a remote server as a proxy to reformat the Flash files into something more suited to an iPad, iPod or iPhone.

While Amazon is keen to extol the virtues of such as technique - pointing out that its AWS server farms are on tier-one connections with a typical latency far lower than your average home or business Wi-Fi connection - it has another motive: user tracking.

By routing all traffic through its own servers, Amazon gets unparalleled insight into what users of the Silk browser get up to when they're on the web. It's no secret: Amazon's press release on the matter explains that "Silk leverages the collaborative filtering techniques and machine learning algorithms Amazon has built over the last 15 years to power features such as 'customers who bought this also bought...'

"As Silk serves up millions of page views every day, it learns more about the individual sites it renders and where users go next. By observing the aggregate traffic patterns on various web sites, it refines its heuristics, allowing for accurate predictions of the next page request.

"For example, Silk might observe that 85 percent of visitors to a leading news site next click on that site's top headline. With that knowledge, EC2 and Silk together make intelligent decisions about pre-pushing content to the Kindle Fire. As a result, the next page a Kindle Fire customer is likely to visit will already be available locally in the device cache, enabling instant rendering to the screen."

Amazon's observation that knowing the most likely next step for a visitor on a site is key to providing efficient content pre-loading, it also indicates a willingness to monitor as much traffic as it can. While the company hasn't addressed the privacy issues inherent in such an approach yet, it will likely explain that traffic isn't tied back to an individual Kindle Fire user. Given that Amazon already knows their name and address, reading habits, watching habits and credit card details, that's something on which we're just going to have to trust the company.

Amazon Silk also has one slight drawback that the company has neglected to mention: should Amazon's EC2 system go down - as a lightning strike in Dublin caused earlier this year - the browser will likely be completely unusable, even for non-AWS hosted content.

A video extolling the virtues of Silk and the advantages it offers for Kindle Fire users over those other, more expensive tablets, is reproduced below.