September 29, 2011, 1:59 PM

Amazon.com unveils a mobile web browser that promises faster speeds

Amazon Silk will work with the e-retailer’s web servers to quicken page loads.

Lead Photo

The new Amazon Kindle Fire tablet runs a proprietary mobile web browser called Silk.

With the launch this week of the Kindle Fire tablet computer, Amazon.com Inc. has become the first serious contender to Apple Inc.’s mega-popular iPad tablet. The world’s biggest e-retailer is taking a shot at succeeding where others, such as the BlackBerry PlayBook and the HP TouchPad, have failed.

To compete against Apple, which has sold 29 million iPads since the tablet launched in April 2010, Amazon looked for an edge anywhere it could find one. One of several areas where Amazon believes it can be highly competitive is mobile web browser performance.

The Kindle Fire features the e-retailer’s new browser, Amazon Silk. The browser residing on the tablet hardware works in conjunction with a fleet of web servers in the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud to together speed page loads, Amazon says. The cloud is a term used for services offered via the Internet.

“We re-factored and rebuilt the browser software stack and now push pieces of the computation into the Amazon Web Services cloud,” says Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder and CEO. “When you use Silk—without thinking about it or doing anything explicit—you’re calling on the raw computational horsepower of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud to accelerate your web browsing.”

Here’s how it works. The Silk browser software resides in two places—on the Kindle Fire and in the cloud. With each web page request made by the browser software on the Fire, Silk determines a division of labor between the mobile hardware and the web servers that takes into consideration factors such as network conditions, page complexity and the location of any cached content.

A typical web page requires 80 files served from 13 different domains, Amazon estimates. It adds that latency—the period of time it takes from when a server request is made for data and a packet of data travels from a server to a device—over wireless connections is high, as much as 100 milliseconds round trip. Serving a web page requires hundreds of such round trips, adding seconds to page load times. Mobile and web performance management firm Keynote Systems Inc. confirms these page construction and latency estimates, noting, though, that mobile web pages would have far fewer files and domains. But the Kindle Fire is designed to browse standard web pages or pages optimized for tablets.

Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud is always connected to the backbone of the Internet, where round-trip latency can be 5 milliseconds or less to most web sites, says Amazon, No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Mobile Commerce Top 300. The 5 millisecond figure could only be achieved if the content being retrieved was part of the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, had been cached there or was coming from a server physically near to Amazon’s servers, contends Dave Karow, a mobile performance analyst at Keynote Systems.

“Amazon is essentially eliminating the many separate connections and multiple domain look-ups from the mobile end,” Karow says. “Just one connection to the cloud end and let that end with its fat pipes, fast servers and deep cache do the rest. At the cloud end they cache as much as possible, so as the user base grows, many page elements would already be at the cloud end and not even need a request to the actual origin.”

In addition to potential latency improvements via the cloud, Amazon’s cloud servers combined have massive computational power, far more than what can be found on a mobile device, the e-retailer adds.

Apple’s Safari mobile web browser works in the traditional way web browsers function. Safari resides only on the iPad and relies on the computational power of only the device; it does not work with web-hosted servers. Apple, No. 2 in the Internet Retailer Mobile Commerce Top 300, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Amazon’s Silk browser is an interesting concept,” says Amir Rozenberg, product manager, mobile, at performance management company Compuware Gomez. “Not only does it run on a device which currently only functions on Wi-Fi—so already pretty fast when compared to 3G—but it leverages the power of the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud to handle a lot of the processing required to render and deliver web pages to the end user’s tablet. This symbiotic relationship between the Amazon cloud and tablet makes it powerful and hard to replicate by others, but it could be vulnerable to one single point of failure versus more traditional distributed systems.”

A single point of failure in this case means that because Amazon is now part of the chain of entities that together deliver a web site, a failure at Amazon, a major single point in the chain for Silk, could degrade performance. “So in the case of an Amazon slowdown or failure, anyone using the Silk browser—whether the web site is served on Elastic Compute Cloud or not—will experience performance issues,” Rozenberg explains.

Overall, Amazon Silk is unique, says Karow of Keynote.

“No other browser has offered this type of service and it is doubtful that anyone can match the scale of the Amazon cloud, unless someone builds or licenses it, which are both fairly expensive,” he says. “Amazon is leveraging their cloud infrastructure and have put the majority of the work and processing power in the cloud to drastically reduce the amount of communication to and from the mobile device. They have potentially eliminated a huge chunk of the issues that makes mobile web browsing less than ideal.”

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