Will Amazon's Silk web browser ever take on Chrome, Safari, IE?
While the focus of much of Amazon.com's announcements on Wednesday has been rightly placed on its Kindle Fire tablet, which will take on rivals such as the Apple iPad and Barnes & Noble's Nook Color, the Seattle retail giant also announced something that could end up being nearly as important in the long run -- its first Web browser, Amazon Silk.
"Amazon is certainly ambitious, there's no doubt that they are," said Al Hilwa, a software analyst with IDC in Seattle, where Amazon is based. "But, here is the point: They're sort of the accidental technology company.
"In order to do online retail at scale, they have to have this sort of technology around. They had to get into cloud computing in a big way to be the world's largest online retailer. And out of that, they've been able to leverage all that they have in smart ways. Silk is one more example of that."
Amazon started out in 1994 as a simple online bookstore, and as books went digital, it released the Kindle to sell e-books. As music, movies and TV shows went from CDs and DVDs to digital streaming and downloads, Amazon got into that business, too, with its MP3 store, the Amazon Cloud Player and its Amazon Prime video streaming service.
As more and more media is purchased and then watched/read/played on smart phones and tablets -- with Apple and Google the dominant parties on such mobile devices, controlling how content gets sold -- Amazon has to be a player in the mobile space. That's why it's released apps of its own, then its Amazon Appstore for Android, and now the Kindle Fire tablet, Hilwa said.
"If you're a retailer and you've got all those mobile devices and content providers and tech companies becoming retailers on these devices too, they're going to crowd you out," he said. "So they need to take these steps to compete. This is first and foremost a retail strategy."
What Amazon is leveraging with Silk is its Amazon Web Services business, which hosts millions of Web pages with popular services such as Twitter and Foursquare among its clients. Amazon is considered the leader in such cloud services. Silk, which Amazon describes as a "cloud-accelerated" Web browser, will only be available on the Kindle Fire tablet.
"Amazon is in a bit of a unique position because of its ownership of the back-end, of the hosting, the cloud," Hilwa said. "And if they can lure over content creators into its services, in the cloud, then they can help monetize and grow their browser. But a lot of this depends on how this browser can execute, if it can be faster and snappier than what's already out there and if it can work on lower-end devices with lower-power chips."
While Amazon developing its own browser makes sense, the announcement of the Silk browser caught a lot of people by surprise Wednesday, he said.
"I think a lot of us have been hearing about one more tablet and maybe the cost is the trump card, but what I wasn't expecting was really a smart software solution to a problem of delivering the Web on mobile devices in a seamless way, in a fast way, in a way that takes advantage of the cloud like this and especially one that offers so many synergies to what Amazon already does," Hilwa said. "It was a bit of an 'aha' moment."
While Amazon's approach with Silk makes use of what the company already is good at, it's not necessarily a new plan either. Silk takes a tactic similar to that of Opera's browsers, in that both browsers compress and store commonly visited websites in the cloud, allowing either to serve up such sites faster than competitors. Opera uses its own servers, while Amazon is using its cloud services' EC2, or elastic compute cloud, technology to pull this off.
"While the split browser architecture is not new, Opera having been a player for a couple of years, I find the overall strategy to be an interesting spin on the me-too Android software we have seen so far, and possibly a game-changer," Hilwa said.
So, will Silk ever jump over to other tablets, smart phones or even the desktop to challenge Google Chrome, Apple's Safari, Opera, Rockmelt or the stalwart, Microsoft's Internet Explorer?
Hilwa said he could see that happening someday but not anytime soon.
"I don't necessarily see this right away as a play in the browser space," he said. "It might be a foot-in-the-door strategy and if it can help Amazon become a better, more powerful retailer, then yes, we'll see Silk on the desktop. A good example is Google. Google isn't a retail company, but Chrome has helped serve as an entry point for other Google products -- in-browser apps, Gmail, Google Docs, all of the services Google provides."
And indeed, Chrome has been a success for Google. Many believed the search giant getting into browsers with Chrome was an unwise move when it launched in 2008. However, as of August, Chrome holds a nearly 23% share of the browser market, according to the tracking firm StatCounter.
"Silk might be a very effective play in TVs at home," Hilwa said. "People don't worry too much about bandwidth at home, but if we ever do have to worry about bandwidth at home, down the road, this sort of technology that helps you load websites faster, while using less data, would be very valuable. And the TV is still a place where people consume a lot of media, so there can be a case for a retailer to have a presence there."
Amazon officials weren't available on Wednesday to comment on plans for Silk, but a job listing on Amazon's website offers a hint that the company might have big plans for the new product.
"Imagine the possibilities when a web browser is powered by a vast, scalable server fleet, massive network connections, and limitless storage resources," Amazon said in its job listing. "Can you think of ways to use those assets to make the browsing experience faster or to introduce previously impossible features? If you are interested in blazing new trails in the cloud computing space this team is for you."
-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Image: The Amazon Silk Web browser running on an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet. Credit: Amazon.com