Capturing all your browsing data: the difference between Amazon’s Silk and Opera Mobile


Chris Espinosa has written a very interesting piece about the Silk browser that comes on Amazon’s freshly announced Fire tablet.

The “split browser” notion is that Amazon will use its EC2 back end to pre-cache user web browsing, using its fat back-end pipes to grab all the web content at once so the lightweight Fire-based browser has to only download one simple stream from Amazon’s servers. But what this means 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 privacy and 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 a discussion on Twitter, Mark Pesce and Alexander Sadleir pointed out that this is basically the same as what Opera Mobile does. The Registry wrote last year:

Without anybody noticing, Opera has amassed one of the world’s most valuable commercial resources. And the funny thing is, it isn’t going to do anything evil with it. Marketing, new media and technology pundits may have to rethink a few things once they digest the size of Opera’s well-kept secret. It is possible the gurus may have spent years barking up the wrong tree.

Six years ago, two Opera engineers came up with a way of saving mobile operators money, by compressing web pages and sending them over slow, high-latency 2G cellular links in binary chunks.

Opera initially offered the technology as a caching proxy to operators, called Mobile Accelerator. Then it decided to offer it directly to end users, via a new small lightweight browser that talked directly to a proxy hosted by Opera itself. The Opera Mini client could run on all kinds of phones and its popularity grew and grew. Opera’s servers, which were originally in its downtown Oslo HQ, had to be moved outside, and soon became a major server operation.

Now compare Google’s “transaction engine” with Opera’s “transaction engine”, and the Norwegian’s offering looks potentially very valuable indeed. Users spend far more time passing through the mobile cache than they do on Google. As well as searches, it contains destinations – news pages, social networking pages and emails. That’s what behavioural advertisers want. This wouldn’t be hard to do, and would involve injecting an advertisement into the binary stream that trickles into the Mini browser. But it’s also precisely what makes it a No Go zone for the company, says Opera.

Because its users trust Opera with such intimate information, the company feels it can’t engage in any Phorm-like behavioural exploitation. Break the bond of trust and they’ll destroy the business. Once upon a time, Google had a similar philosophy – Don’t Get Too Creepy Today (I may have mis-remembered that). Even Google does behavioural advertising now, but it’s very careful not to use the b-word.

There are two key differences between the companies behind Opera Mobile and Silk:
1. Their motivations
2. The way their motivations are perceived

While Amazon is generally viewed somewhat less negatively than Facebook and Google on privacy, that may change. No one doubts the profit motive of Amazon, or the depth of their desire to dominate the Universe, which is probably on a par with its aforementioned peers.

As such, whatever Amazon’s motives and the reality of Chris Espinosa’s analysis, there is likely to be pushback if Amazon overuses the browsing data it is gathering.

While Opera is very well regarded, it is a publicly listed company, and presumably its shareholders want it to make money. As such, it may need to look at the full commercial potential of the data it is gathering.

In a broader context, the mobile browser landscape is getting increasing diverse, reflecting how dynamic the space is, and of course the extraordinary value of the space as people shift their online activities to the mobile space. How this relates to gathering consumer data and monetizing it, not least through targeted advertising, will be one of the biggest spaces to watch in coming months and years.

  • Ed Decker

    Hmm. Apparently you haven’t noticed that when you visit Amazon’s site, the offerings on their page often reflect products or content choices based on the last few web pages you visited–meaning they are already looking at your browser’s cookies, etc. to suggest similar products or content.  And that means of course that they are making a record of that data. What they do with Fire may only be a more extensive continuation of this, rather than a new intrusion into our privacy.

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