By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
September 29, 2011

There’s a case to be made that Amazon’s new browser is more important than its tablet

The hardware Amazon (AMZN) introduced Wednesday dominated the early headlines. Most of the coverage focused on whether Amazon’s Fire tablet will cut into sales of Apple’s (AAPL) iPad or Barnes & Noble’s (BKS) Nook or both.

But the second-day stories have started to zero in on the implications of a less-heralded — and more unexpected — announcement: The special-purpose browser Amazon’s software engineers have designed to speed up Web searches on their new mobile device.

It’s called Silk, and CEO Jeff Bezos pitched it as a solution to the problem of pulling up content from today’s increasingly complex Web pages, using as an example a typical home page with its 53 static images, 39 dynamic images, 3 Flash files, 30 JavaScript files from 7 different domains, 29 HTML files and 7 CSS files.

To get all this on the screen of a hand-held device without an unreasonable delay, Bezos and his engineers explained, Amazon has split the task in two: Some of the work is done by the tablet, but most is carried out in Amazon’s giant server farms, where users’ Web request are sent for pre-processing and, where possible, caching for future use.

“What this means,” explained posterous‘ Chris Espinosa in a widely quoted commentary posted Wednesday afternoon, “is that Amazon will capture and control every Web transaction performed by Fire users. Every page they see, every link they follow, every click they make, every ad they see is going to be intermediated by one of the largest server farms on the planet. People who cringe at the data-mining implications of the Facebook Timeline ought to be just floored by the magnitude of Amazon’s opportunity here. Amazon now has what every storefront lusts for: the knowledge of what other stores your customers are shopping in and what prices they’re being offered there. What’s more, Amazon is getting this not by expensive, proactive scraping the Web, like Google has to do; they’re getting it passively by offering a simple caching service, and letting Fire users do the hard work of crawling the Web. In essence the Fire user base is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, scraping the Web for free and providing Amazon with the most valuable cache of user behavior in existence.”

Those aren’t quite the terms Amazon’s engineers used when they described Silk to the press in a 5:45 video. We’ve posted the YouTube version below the fold.

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