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By Craig Buckler

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

By Craig Buckler

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.

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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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