Amazon Kindle Fire, the Silk Browser and its Impact on Web Development

I don’t normally write about specific hardware but, unless you’ve just returned from the outskirts of Neptune, it’s been impossible to avoid news of Amazon’s Kindle Fire. That said, I wrote about the iPad so — in the interests of fairness — let’s look at what the Fire does and doesn’t offer web developers.

Pass the Tablets

The technical details:

Amazon Kindle Fire

  • screen: 7″ multi-touch display, 1024 x 600 pixels, 169 ppi, 16 million colors
  • dimensions: 7.5″ x 4.7″ x 0.45″ (190 mm x 120 mm x 11.4 mm)
  • weight: 14.6 ounces (413 grams)
  • networking: wi-fi
  • storage: 8GB internal storage, free cloud storage for Amazon content
  • content formats: Kindle (AZW), TXT, PDF, MOBI, PRC, AA, AAX, DOC, DOCX, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, AAC, MP3, MIDI, OGG, WAV, MP4 and VP8
  • battery life: 8 hours
  • price: $199
  • availability: US pre-order only, expected November 15, 2011

The OS is based on Android 2.something (rumored to be pre 2.2). However, you won’t find Google branding — the interface provides the full Amazonian experience. Unsurprisingly, you’ll only be able to install apps from the Amazon store. That’s how they’ll recoup the unit’s below-market cost.

Silky Browsing

According to the marketing hype, the Fire will run Silk — a brand new web browser that lives both on the tablet and in the cloud:

Kindle Fire introduces a radical new paradigm — a “split browser” architecture that accelerates the power of the mobile device hardware by using the computing speed and power of the Amazon Web Services Cloud. The result is a faster web browsing experience.

Most of the heavy-lifting is shifted from the processor on your device to our powerful AWS servers. Access to such lightning fast CPUs, expansive memory, and huge network connections allows the performance of Amazon Silk to transcend the capabilities of your local device.

In essence:

  1. Silk is a custom webkit browser.
  2. Page requests are routed through an Amazon proxy server.
  3. The proxy will optimize content for the Fire. Resources will be cached on EC2 servers so DNS lookups and file downloads are minimized. In addition, large images may be resized to fit the device.
  4. Amazon monitors usage patterns. For example, if it notices that a large proportion of SitePoint users visit the HTML5 Dev Center, it will pre-push that page to the device so it can be rendered instantly.
  5. The browser supports Flash — it would be madness not to!

View the Silk introduction video on YouTube…

Amazon refer to Silk as a “revolutionary cloud-accelerated web browser”.

Sorry to spoil the party but Opera has been doing this for many years — long before the term “cloud computing” was invented. Opera servers pre-render pages and push optimized byte-code to Opera Mini. That’s why it works on modest mobile phones (and why Apple permitted it on their devices when they don’t normally allow competing browsers).

The other versions of Opera also support Turbo which compresses web pages and images if you’re on a slow connection.

While it may not be revolutionary, Silk is certainly interesting. Assuming there are no security or privacy issues, it should offer a faster browsing experience while permitting client-side HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.

Time to Set Fire to Your iPad?

Several articles are reporting that Amazon has already won the tablet war.

I’m not convinced.

Like a standard Kindle, the Fire is not a general-purpose computer. It’s a consumer device for those who want to purchase electronic books, music, videos and games from Amazon’s App Store.

The iPad is more powerful. It may cost three times as much, but Apple’s customers are not known for their price-sensitivity. In addition, there are less expensive Android tablets.

I doubt Amazon will dent Apple’s sales but let’s not discount their marketing clout. The Kindle Fire is ideal for people who want an eBook reader with a color screen and more computing power. The Fire also appeals to those who would like tablet but cannot justify Apple’s price premium.

Assuming there are no technical or distribution hurdles, the Kindle Fire is almost certain to be a success. The tablet market will grow as a result.

How Should Web Developers Prepare?

Are you testing your site on e-ink Kindles? I doubt it. The current devices use slow-refreshing black-and-white experimental browsers.

However, the Fire and similar small tablet devices will become increasingly important within the next 1-2 years. Fortunately, the web development techniques and technologies exist today…

  • consider touch devices when defining JavaScript event handlers
  • ensure your site works in other webkit browsers such as Chrome and Safari
  • experiment with responsive layouts and media queries
  • consider adopting a mobile-first design approach (stay tuned to SitePoint for further articles soon)
  • test your designs at 1024 x 600 and — importantly — 600 x 1024.

More information about the Kindle Fire at Amazon.com…

Will the Fire be a success? Have you adopted web development practices which cater for touch-screen mobile devices?

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  • http://www.yutzydesign.com Matt

    I appreciate your unbiased approach to this news. It seems whenever something pops up that might compete with Apple, the flame-wars start.

    Typo in the last paragraph; no biggie.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      While the iPad and the Fire are both tablets which share common functionality, I don’t think they appeal to the same market. The Fire is primarily for entertainment. The iPad is more general purpose (although I suspect entertainment is one of the primary reasons people buy one).

      However, the Fire will appeal to existing and potential Kindle users. The current devices are not particularly usable for web browsing but the Fire will be.

  • Kent Allard

    Only if web developers care about “both” people who will be buying the Kindle Fire.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Ooooo! You’re not impressed then?!

    • EastCoast

      I presume the flippancy of Kent’s remark is brought on by being religiously attached to apple.

      I’m an ipad owner myself but reckon Amazon will do extremely well with this. Apart from their massive marketing and ecommerce capability they have to help sell it, it falls below the spending threshold for many in the population resistant to spending heavily on gadgets, that perhaps sensibly think that removing a keyboard/dvd-drive/usb etc from a portable computing device shouldn’t make it -more- expensive than a laptop.

      The recent hp firesale proved beyond any doubt that there is an appetite for a quality, brand name device at the correct price point.

      For most users it will fit their likely end use admirably (coffee table/tv-companion for light browsing and email, film and music consumption on the move)

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        I agree. Apple fans will always buy Apple products but, at $200, the Kindle falls into impulse/present purchases for significantly more people.

        Obviously, we need to wait the real product release and initial reviews. There’s also the question of whether Amazon can cater for demand and launch it on the international market. But, if anyone can do it, they can.

        Few people would bet against the Fire. It’s certain to become one of the most popular small tablets and that may affect how we approach web design.

      • http://www.50secondsnorth.com Patrick Samphire

        I’m not totally convinced by the idea that the Fire will be much use for watching movies. I’ve tried using my iPad for movies and find it a fairly unpalatable experience. The Fire will be even smaller and more unpleasant.

  • http://www.cotsweb.com Mark

    I would love it if Amazon created a version of Silk that would run on other devices so I can test my websites in it as I do with other browsers.
    Failing that an Amazon site that shows you how your site would render in Silk would be helpful.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      That would be useful. It’s an Android app so it should work on those devices or a VM. In theory, Amazon could release the whole OS as an installable image – after all, they’ll make most of their money from the App Store, not the hardware.

      • http://www.cotsweb.com Mark

        An installable image for Virtual Box would be perfect for me but I could work with an image for EC2 which is probably more likely.

        It depends on how different it is to the other webkit browsers and of course on what market share it gets.

        It would certainly be in Amazon’s interests to get developers on board, if the web doesn’t work properly on Silk people won’t use it. It is much more important on a proper tablet, competing with the iPad, than it is with the “experimental browser” on the other Kindle devices.

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        There’s a strong rumor that Silk will be released for other devices. Amazon appear to have registered the domain names silkfordroid.com, silkformac.com, silkforpc.com, silkfortablets.com, and silkforwindows.com.

  • http://www.webceraton.com Eko Subagio

    Do you think google will not adopt this feature into their next web browser or their next android ? or how if the rumor google will buy the patent from amazon ? one thing for sure this is the technology that google feel this is a missing piece that finally found by amazon. Thanks for the article.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      I’m not convinced Google will adopt Silk unless it’s in their commercial benefit, e.g. Amazon pay commissions on product sales. However, Silk is almost certain to be available on Android and other OSs.

  • http://seacountry.blogspot.com/ Joseph Martel

    Can you hook up an external CD-DVD drive to the Kindle Fire?

  • http://www.hotspotpromotion.com Darlene Hull

    I adore my Kindle – rarely buy books now that aren’t available in that format. This new version fascinates me and looks like a perfect mix for those who want a modest tablet and the wonders of the Kindle. Gotta go find me one to take a look! Thanks for laying it all out for us so clearly!