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Why Silk won’t be silky smooth for Amazon

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Updated. Amazon (s AMZN) in late September launched new Kindle devices including Kindle Fire, a tablet that makes content a centerpiece of its tablet strategy. It also announced a new browser, Amazon Silk, that proposed to use cloud to offer a blazing fast experience. Silk’s hybrid browser architecture quickly triggered some privacy concerns. Amazon weighed in on my queries and clarified their position.

Nevertheless, I have continued to receive feedback, some private and some over various social networks. One that stands out is from MathewMatthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of CloudFlare, a hosted proxy service provider based in San Diego San Francisco who shared his thoughts. Prince, (you can follow him on Twitter @eastdakota) who teaches cyber law at John Marshall where he serves on the Board of the Center for Information Technology & Privacy Law, believes Amazon will continue to face “technical, legal, and privacy concerns with Silk.” He points out that similar attempts in the past have not been very successful, even for Google(s goog).

Amazon’s Silk Browser may be a game changer, but the history of similar efforts shows the company may face significant headaches in getting it to work. The Silk Browser loads pages through a proxy which can have a number of benefits to end users. Depending on how aggressive the Silk proxy is, it could speed up browser performance, allow Kindle devices to get away with slower, less expensive processors, and potentially even increase the battery life by offloading web rendering.

The Silk Browser it isn’t really new technology and it’s not a slam dunk that it will work. The Opera Mini browser uses a proxy which has several of the same features as Amazon’s Silk. Google tried something similar back in 2005 with their Web Accelerator Plugin. While the plugin is no longer available, the support documents still are. Google discontinued support in early 2008 after a number of issues arose — similar issues that are likely to be faced by Amazon with Silk.

I predict that Amazon is likely to face technical, legal, and privacy concerns with Silk. Technically, the biggest challenge will likely be cache invalidation. If I visit my bank website and my account page is cached, Amazon needs to be 100 percent certain that when someone else visits the same bank they never see my account information. From the technical specifications, it appears that Amazon is only caching static resources such as images. While that will solve many of the cases, there will still be places that Silk could end up leaking private data (e.g., a stock photo or porn site that charges for access to its photos).

Unlike existing proxies (like CloudFlare) or traditional CDNs whose clients are the website owners, Amazon’s clients are the web browsers, so they are copying content without the content owners’ explicit permission. This could lead to copyright headaches. While there are safe harbors for service providers caching content, Amazon’s nebulous status between network provider, retailer, and even publisher could muddle their case in court and make them a tempting target. The more Amazon alters the content in order to increase performance, the more jeopardy they will put themselves in.

Finally, Silk potentially puts Amazon in the privacy crosshairs. It appears they are planning to subsidize some of the Kindle’s pricing with advertising, and that advertising will likely be most effective if it is targeted using browsing data gleaned from Silk. Users and regulators can react very strongly if they feel their information is being sold without their permission, and Silk has the potential to score high on the creepiness factor. These privacy concerns have a way of blowing up unexpectedly with regulators resulting in substantially burdensome regulation. In this case, Amazon has already made many government enemies as they’ve fought Internet sales tax initiatives. Going after them for privacy violations may prove a tempting target for lobbyists that [are] already trying to demonize them.

My hunch is that Amazon will find a way to pull it off, but it won’t entirely be smooth for Silk.

What do you think about Prince’s take?

12 Responses to “Why Silk won’t be silky smooth for Amazon”

  1. Amazon Silk s so innovative, going to be faster than any browsers with its split browser, compression technology like Opera Mini and studying page characteristics and users’ behaviours but going to fail privacy and security. Anybody who does not believe in Privacy and Security on Silk, they have an option to browse in off-cloud mode. So you have the option to choose the hi-speed cloud or off-cloud mode. Though Amazon uses the same compression technology as Opera Mini, Silk has additional features too. I would go for Silk.

  2. Richard L Brandt

    Personally, I think everyone is too paranoid about the privacy issue. Most just cite the “creepiness” factor as though some human on the other side of the connection is reading your email and watching what you download. It’s a computer, folks. Just don’t do anything that would justify having the police get a warrant for your browsing history. I’d rather have relevant ads and my preferences recorded. It’s onlu another computer that sees them.

    Security may be another issue. I don’t want hackers breaking in to see my bank account or password info. That’s a technical issue. The question is if we trust Amazon to solve it.

  3. Nicholas

    While I agree with some of these thoughts, it is not technically difficult to cache specific types of pages and reload others. One of the most annoying aspects of Safari on the iPad is the unnecessary reloading of pages. iOS 5 may change that.

    Opera Mini’s strengths are in reducing data usage and display overhead, the former being Amazon’s concern. I predict that Amazon will address these issues down the road with a subscription plan that covers data costs more realistically. Having a free library derived from Gutenberg would be a general cure to these issues, as would a music subscription plan.

  4. Lazie Walie

    There are ways to circumvent many of these issues like maintaining a list of sites that aren’t cached at all or defining rules as to which sites can be cached and which can’t. Still it would be a huge boon for everyone if implemented properly. Think about thousands of clients hitting refresh every second during a live apple event. The Silk server can handle that much better.

  5. Josh Fraser

    It will be interesting to watch. We talked about offering a similar service at Torbit, but concluded that people would freak out too much over the privacy concerns. As usual, it’s up to the geeks to talk about this stuff because the privacy implications won’t be obvious to the general public. We’ll have to see how good the performance benefits are before we decide if it’s worth the trade off.

  6. Phil Hendrix

    Om, in our analysis of social media in the days following Amazon’s announcement of Kindle Fire, we found that “a significant percentage of individuals commenting on Silk – 1 in 3 – expressed concerns about privacy.” We concluded that “Amazon will need to monitor views closely and address concerns at it brings the Kindle Fire and its ‘split, cloud-based’ browser to market.” As consumers learn more about Silk, Prince’s analysis suggests that this could become an even bigger issue.

    (Source: Amazon Kindle Fire is hot according to social media, GigaOm, Sept. 30, 2011 -

    Dr. Phil Hendrix, immr and GigaOm Pro analyst

  7. Karim Marquette

    I wonder how all that works when using iOS? I hope I’m using an app that is a direct link between my iPhone and the bank, without anything getting cached by whomever.

  8. TabletMonster

    Completely agree! The Kindle Fire will post huge numbers making it the first real competition the iPad has seen. While not outselling the iPad it will most likely sell more units than all the other Android competition combined. Come by and join the premier Kindle Fire community as we follow the explosive sales of the Kindle Fire and report on all the news, apps and accessories while learning from other Kindle Fire owners.

  9. Steve Ardire

    Yup generally agree and in addition we get GOOG trying their own version of ‘Lock In’ with Dart: a language for structured web programming – The official Google Code blog

    So we see Amazon and GOOG going for their own ‘walled gardens’ after Apple gets most of the diss doing

    note: please don’t even talk about that loser called AOL ;)