Home The Implications of Amazon’s Silk Web Browser

The Implications of Amazon’s Silk Web Browser

Jeff Bezos wasn’t just rambling today when he was talking about Amazon’s cloud services in the middle of the consumer-focused Kindle triple-launch. Amazon’s Kindle has massive implications for the tablet market, but the Silk browser has some implications for the Web at large. And don’t expect the Silk browser to stay confined to the Kindle Fire.

By funneling traffic through Amazon’s own servers, it may create some privacy implications and security concerns for individuals and businesses. It also changes the landscape a bit for cloud computing providers.

Technical Implications

From a technical perspective, it seems Amazon has come up with a fairly creative solution for dealing with the problem of Web browsing for mobile devices.

As Amazon says, modern Web sites are getting more and more complex. Rendering a single Web page for many sites requires hitting tens of domains and upwards of 100 files. That can be sluggish even on modern desktops, and they have a lot more horsepower than the Kindle Fire’s 7-inch package can hold.

Focusing on EC2 means that Amazon is putting out a clarion call for companies to host their sites on AWS infrastructure. The promise is that if you host there, you’re going to be reaching your customers that much faster. Granted – right now you’re only going to be reaching your customers that happen to have a Kindle Fire tablet.

But does it seem likely that Amazon will put that much emphasis on Silk just for the Fire? I don’t think that’s likely. Amazon has several jobs posted for Silk engineers, and while mobile is mentioned, it’s not exclusive. I strongly suspect that Amazon is going to be releasing a Silk desktop browser eventually. Probably not in the near future – Amazon needs to make sure that its infrastructure can handle the onslaught of all the Kindle users before trying to scale to an unknown number of desktop users.

Another side-effect of Silk is that Amazon is making AWS a household name. Sure, there are plenty of providers – but how many have a major consumer device to showcase their services?

As an aside, I wonder what happens when Amazon has another major EC2 outage as they did earlier this year? Does this mean that their customers using the Silk browser are going to be unable to reach the Web?

Note that Amazon isn’t the first to do something like this. On a smaller scale, Opera lets users turn on server-side compression that goes through its servers. However, it does look like Amazon is doing it on a much larger scale, and certainly has a heftier infrastructure than Opera.

If Amazon is successful here, look for Google, Apple and Microsoft to quickly follow suit. If the split-browsing idea catches on, it puts Mozilla in an interesting position as the only major browser maker without the kind of infrastructure to deploy the cloud-side services.

Privacy, Security and Content Integrity

What’s of greater interest here is that Amazon is positioning itself to filter content viewed by millions of users – assuming the Fire sells well, of course.

From Amazon’s press release about the Silk, “with each page request, Silk dynamically determines a division of labor between the mobile hardware and Amazon EC2 (i.e. which browser sub-components run where) that takes into consideration factors like network conditions, page complexity and the location of any cached content.” Amazon goes on to say that Silk is going to be learning from the “aggregate traffic patterns” of Web users. In short, Amazon is watching you.

And not just in aggregate. Each Kindle is tied to an Amazon ID, which gives Amazon a great deal of information about you already. Introducing Silk into the mix and Amazon is going to be in a position to know a great deal about your Web browsing habits along with your buying habits and media habits. Now Amazon is in a position to know what books you buy, what shows you watch, the Web sites you visit and much more. I’m curious to see how Silk handles things like corporate intranets where it has no access to the sites in question.

Granted, Amazon isn’t the only one with insight into your browsing habits – so is your ISP. But this introduces a new relationship between Amazon and its customers that bears noticing. And Amazon is taking a more active role in the experience by trying to pre-fetch and deliver data ahead of time.

I asked the EFF what they thought about the implications of the Silk browser. Given the fact that they’ve had no time to look at it closely, they declined to give a specific comment – but pointed to the reader privacy act that they’re supporting in California. While that’s targeted at records for booksellers and relates to digital and physical books, it might be time to expand the scope a bit.

Then there’s the question of content integrity. Amazon has indicated that it plans “optimized content delivery,” and the example given is compressing images for display on the Fire. On one hand, this makes sense – you may not want a 3MB image when you’re going to be viewing it on a 7-inch screen. Then again, maybe you do want the uncompressed image. With Amazon caching so much content, how do you know if you’re getting the latest content and not something that’s 10 minutes old or worse. In the majority of situations, it may not matter if you get cached content that’s slightly out of date, but it may matter a lot to publishers.

Until the Kindle Fire ships, there are more questions than answers. I’m eager to get hands on a Fire so I can test out Silk and see for myself how it works. I’m not yet concerned about the privacy issues, but I do think they bear watching. What do you think? Is the Silk model something you’re excited about, or is Amazon a middle-man you’d rather do without when browsing the Web?

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