Split browser key to Amazon Silk's success

Tapping on Amazon's cloud infrastructure enables faster Web page loading time for users, but lack of usage beyond Kindle Fire and privacy issues major turn-offs, say analysts.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

The key merit of Amazon's Silk browser lies in its "split browser" approach, where it leverages the cloud to provide a speedier mobile browsing experience for users and possible edge over competitors, according to analysts. They warn, however, that its availability only on Kindle Fire and associated privacy and security concerns are significant disadvantages.

Launched two weeks ago, the premise behind Amazon's new browser was that the Kindle Fire would work with the Web giant's cloud services, Jeff Orr, group director of consumer research at ABI Research, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail. The integration, he noted, results in faster loading time for complex Web pages that might otherwise take longer if only performed locally on the Kindle Fire.

Elaborating, Krishna Baidya, Frost & Sullivan's industry manager for Asia-Pacific ICT practice, said with the split browser approach, Amazon offers a much faster user experience by tapping their cloud infrastructure, doing most of the "heavy lifting" such as optimizing JavaScript and compressing content while rendering Web pages. This enhancing of browser experience also frees up locally available computing resources and bandwidth of end-user devices, the Singapore-based analyst explained in an e-mail.

The browser also keeps its connection to Amazon's cloud open, he said, reducing latency and offering better surfing experience. The promise of browsing speed optimization, in particular, is strong enough to lure users from Opera or other native browsers on the mobile device, according to him.

Another key differentiator is that Amazon also leverages its cloud infrastructure and technologies to "predict the next click" on particular Web pages based on data collected about user behavior on the page, Baidya added. This allows the browser to be proactive, fetching information ahead of command and keeping it ready to be served instantly.

Richard Edward, principal analyst of information management at Ovum, noted that the mobile Web experience today comes at a cost, but with the Kindle Fire priced at US$199, Amazon has brought down the cost of entry to the mobile Web and is offering consumers an attractive Web and media "consumption" device backed by the world's largest media provider.

While it has yet to be proven, Amazon's ability to utilize computing speed and power of the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud to offer a split browser architecture already "outperforms" standalone browsers such as Internet Explorer Mobile, Safari and other WebKit-based browsers, and rival offerings such as Opera Mini or Skyfire, Edward said.

According to Charlotte Miller, research analyst at Juniper Research, Amazon's browser functions similar to Opera Mini, but is able to offer a much faster browsing experience and a better battery life because only code optimized for the tablet will be sent to it. That reduces the load on the processor, she explained in an e-mail.

Additionally, Silk is backed by the "massive household name" of Amazon, something Opera does not have, U.K.-based Miller said. This branding, she added, could propel cloud-based browsing into the mainstream.

Sole availability on Kindle Fire a disadvantage
Frost & Sullivan's Baidya pointed out, however, that Silk is limited to Kindle Fire devices only and not even open to Android devices. To that end, it will not enjoy enough reach to become a "dominant force" in the dynamic environment of mobile browsing, he said.

Some features touted in Silk, such as pre-loading anticipated Web pages based on habits of other Silk users, also require an existing population of Kindle Fire users before the performance gains can be realized, Orr of ABI Research observed.

"Absolute browser performance and the benefit of pre-loading will only be fully understood once the Kindle Fire is commercially available and a significant installed base of users exists," the U.S.-based researcher explained.

Daryl Chiam, principal analyst at Canalys, added in a phone interview that being available only on one mobile platform means Silk will not be in direct competition with PC browsers such as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. The success of Silk browser thus is dependent on "how well Kindle Fire sells", he noted. That said, Chiam was positive about Silk's market acceptance as Amazon's tablet has been selling well in terms of preorders.

It is also possible that Amazon will license Silk to other hardware manufacturers in future, particularly those utilizing the Android operating system, which also powers Kindle Fire, Ovum's Edward noted.

Lack of privacy, man-in the-middle behavior
In terms of security-related concerns, Baidya noted that the Internet community would be concerned about Amazon's cloud behaving as a "broker" between the Web and the user. Users are anxious over one knowing every move of the user on a web page, he said, and the thought of "my next possible click is already known" may seem "eerie" to some.

Besides allowing Amazon to view every single Webpage a user visits, Miller of Juniper Research warned that the way Silk goes about anticipating what the user wants seems to intercept secure connection, which can be considered a man-in-the-middle attack.

However, Ovum's Edward pointed out that Amazon has explained Silk's split-browser architecture will establish a secure connection from the cloud to the destination site when using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer).

Amazon, he said, also has a "sensible option" to pacify the "ultra-cautious, non-trusting customer", as any user with privacy concerns related to the use of Amazon as a proxy server can switch Silk to "standalone" mode.

The availability of Silk, Edward noted, will not significantly change the security landscape. He warned, however, that while malware on mobile devices are not as rampant as that on personal computers, it does not mean that they are completely secure.

"We assume that Kindle Fire owners will be able to download content to their devices," he said. "It will be interesting to see if Amazon provides virus and malware protection for these Android-based devices."

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