Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

Summary: Amazon is relying on its cloud to optimize the performance of its coming Silk browser. Microsoft, despite its cloud chops, isn't going the browser-as-a-service route.


One of the key components of the Amazon Kindle Fire announcement today was the unveiling of a new Amazon-developed browser, known as Silk.

Silk partions its processing between the Kindle Fire device and Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). In a way, it's browser as a service (BaaS).

Even though Microsoft has a substantial home-grown Microsoft "cloud" at its disposal, it isn't going the BaaS route. In fact, with Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to bring back the concept of killer Windows applications (Metro applications) that reside locally and are built around its browser rendering engine, I'd argue. Yes, Microsoft is enabling Windows 8 Metro App developers connect to SkyDrive, but this ability doesn't affect browsing directly.

I asked the IE team for its take on Silk and was told Microsoft had no comment. Microsoft has been tweaking its browsing performance with IE 9 and 10 by taking advantage of hardware accelerated graphics processing and various caching improvements. Microsoft officials have never spoken of plans to offload any of IE's processing to Windows Azure or the Microsoft cloud. Microsoft is maintaining two versions of IE -- one for PCs and one for Windows Phones (though both are currently known as IE 9).

In Amazon's video explaining the development of Silk, its engineers note that browsing tasks are divided between the device and the Amazon cloud. Among the tasks that will be "decoupled" are networking, HTML and JavaScript processing, "Collections," marshalling, formatting, layout and display.

(click on image to enlarge)

Silk will keep a persistent connection open to the Amazon servers, which "eliminates background handshaking common to all web browsers," as my ZDNet colleague James Kendrick explained it.

Amazon isn't the first to take this route, as other bloggers have noted. Opera's been down the hybrid device/cloud browsing road with Opera Turbo.

"Amazon's approach is out of the ordinary in one respect – no other tablet manufacturer has delivered an approach quite like this. Admittedly, no other manufacturer has had to," said Wes Miller, an analyst with the independent Directions on Microsoft firm. Miller notes that the Kindle Fire only features 8 GB of storage, requiring most users to keep the bulk of their content -- music, movies, TV shows and apps -- in the cloud.

"CDNs (content delivery networks), including Amazon’s are already used today to cache frequently requested components of websites – JS libraries and CSS content that change infrequently across pages are the usual suspects involved here. It’s a creative use of their own technology and infrastructure," said Miller. "At first glance it does not seem that far removed from the enterprise proxy servers of old, or even AOL, who used proxies for users within their own 'walled garden,' the difference being the use of the CDN, which may well already cache quite a bit of this content even without clients having ever requested anything."

Along with others across the Web, I've got a few questions about Silk after watching Amazon's announcement.

  • What happens if Amazon's EC2 goes down? How will Kindle Fire users access their content and data?
  • What kind of security mechanisms will be part of Silk, if any?
  • What kind of privacy policies and safeguards will be in place, given that Silk (and users' content/data) will be dependent on Amazon's servers?
  • What's the rendering engine inside Silk? Is it Webkit? Is it some new proprietary technology? Update: Silk is WebKit-based, uses Google’s SDPY HTTP-replacement protocol and supports Flash 10, ExtremeTech said.
  • Will Amazon suggest and/or require developers writing apps that will work on Kindle Fire to use Silk's rendering engine in their own applications?
  • How compliant is Silk with evolving Web standards like CSS3, HTML5, etc.?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told Bloomberg BusinessWeek that “We don’t think of the Kindle Fire as a tablet. We think of it as a service." Browser as a service, tablet as a service -- what's next?

Update: Amazon has published a Silk FAQ document.

Topics: Laptops, Amazon, Browser, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility, Tablets


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • I don't think it will succeed

    The world is moving to the other direction, devices are more clever not dumber. Few years back we expected that the browser will be the only intelligent client needed, now we have app markets that make users crazy. If we ignore heavy HTML5 games most devices are able to render pages properly anyways. HTML standards don't change fast and hardware gets much better, so what's the point? Besides web sites are getting better optimizing the number of files to load, JSON etc. make pages extremely fast.

    If Amazon would come up with a tool that takes apps and uses cloud power to make it browser enabled it could make sense. But for now I believe they are doing what they have to do, sell an extremely cheap device that just ticks the boxes. e-reader? tick, browser? tick.. Not good enough for demanding users so I believe their device will still be an e-reader.
    The cloud guy
  • The Opera Mini approach

    This is very much the Opera Mini approach. It does the same thing. Works OK but often has rendering problems when the cloud part formats the pages for the small screen. On iPad you don't have that kind of issue. It is really the details that will make it pass or fail, not the concept. How good it will render pages is the test.
  • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

    I guess what's old is new again at least to Amazon. I don't think the walled, always have to be connected path is a good idea. But given their target market it'll probably be sufficient. It???s further proof these are truly companion devices and not tablets or general purpose computers. They are not part of the Android ecosystem.
  • Is Webkit Based

    As you can see in jobs offers by Amazon in Silk area...
  • Biggest difference

    "There are two types of companies: those that work hard to charge customers more, and those that work hard to charge customers less. Both approaches can work. We are firmly in the second camp."

    Sounds better to me than 'all your METRO apps. will carry a 30% surcharge'. We are firmly in the second camp!
    • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken


      You're paying for the Amazon apps as well. What? You didn't know that metro apps are just that... apps? You also didn't know that Amazon will have all data from you? The browsing goes through -their- cloud.
      Michael Alan Goff
  • If EC2 is down ...

    ... answer is in the graphic at the top of the post: both browser and cloud have all functions; I imagine if EC is down then the local device takes over.

    Careful: Hess has added you to his 'wierd paranoid' list.
  • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

    Microsoft took a similar approach with their mediaroom/IPTV browser (pixel browser) several years ago.
  • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

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  • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

    Interesting topic, but rather misses the point.

    Microsoft *loathe* the cloud with a passion, as virtually everyone gives free access to it. M$'s profits still largely come from selling softwear - much harder to do that from the cloud when the competition is giving it to all takers for free.

    Of course M$ have to deal with the cloud - but it's one grudging step after another, as the more they encourage it, the more customers they will lose. They are in a real no-win situation.

    Sad really, as the best business move they ever made (from their POV, I stress) was giving IE free to destroy Netscape, and Word first succeeded by criminally undercutting WordPerfect, not by being better. But until they are sure of a way to recoup the cash, they'll not fully embrace the cloud.
    • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

      @Heenan73 So, the concept of getting more for less does not interest you as a consumer?
    • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

      @Heenan73 Your spew is interesting but not well informed. Microsoft has a very strong inventment in the cloud and cloud infrastructure. They have embraced it whole heartedly and continue to make it a core pillar and service. I have personally leveraged the Azure cloud service and find it to be world class and leading edge in every sense of the word.

      Their live services are amazing and improving all the time. Windows 8 is a very cloud coupled and enable OS and I have been enjoying the preview for the past couple of weeks. Every initiative they have on the table today has a cloud component to it.

      I think your personal bias against Microsoft has clouded your reasoning. I'm not saying you have to like Microsoft, but you should try to stick to facts, not bias-ridden conjecture.
    • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

      @Heenan73 You don't remember history very well. Wordperfect committed suicide when it released the unbelievably bad Wordperfect for Windows. After that it was very rapid market loss.
  • The solution is...

    ...whatever works best for the user.

    If processing on the host reduces time and bandwidth, then that is likely to be the more desirable product.
  • One question

    "Silk will keep a persistent connection open to the Amazon servers"

    Might not be a problem for someone connecting to their home wireless router... but if you're using a data plan from a wireless carrier, does that mean Silk will eat into your data cap limits?
  • Maybe MS doesn't want to draw attention to their uptime record

    Joking (mostly). Of course any such solution can't have the CDN as a single point of failure, and has to gracefully degrade to "standard" browser functionality.
  • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

    Architecturally, it is dead easy to do the same thing with IE/Azure. IE is already architectured to dynamically load different browser controls based on the MIME type of the incoming content (e.g. HTML, a Word document, a Visio file). Why can't someone create a Silk browser control for IE that connects to the Silk/AWS service? ...or create an "Angora" browser control that talks to Silk/AWS work-a-like service running on Azure? Google would have no trouble with this. They've already cached the universe of web pages that are out there. I don't think what Amazon has done is particuarly innovative ...opportunitstic, yes but not truly innovative. It's just the Technology Wheel of Reincarnation at work once more.
  • RE: Microsoft and Amazon: Two browsers, two clouds and two different paths taken

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