Amazon's new Silk redefines browser tech

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

The Kindle Fire tablet
The Kindle Fire tablet from Amazon.com.

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 $199 Kindle Fire tablet, which will be available Nov. 15.

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.

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