The incredible story of SNS and a Kindle

I thought nobody would ever buy e-readers. They seemed  a gimmick for geeks, not a tool for people who read in high volumes; books have done perfectly well for thousands of years without needing a battery to look at them. And besides, there’s the tactile aspect. You want to mark a book, put notes in the margin, make it yours. Creases in the spine and dog-ears on every chapter are a mark of pride on one’s bookshelf; the subtle visual cues of how many pages you’ve consumed and how it falls open on a table all add to the immersive experience. No chunk of technology could do better.

Or so I thought.

I’ve had my Amazon Kindle less than a week and I’m hooked.

Hooked on a carryalong gizmo that can’t do email, doesn’t handle touch, and whose screen is a 16-shade greyscale not seen on a PDA since 1998. While I work in technology I’m not much of a gadget fiend; I’d rather let someone else do the bleeding edge and I’ll buy it when it works, thank you. So why did I buy a Kindle?

The reason? It does one thing – but does that thing very, very well.

I subscribe to an insider’s newsletter called SNS. It’s distributed in PDF. Since PDF is portrait-friendly and most computer screens are landscape, reading SNS on my laptop sucks (let’s face it, reading anything off a computer screen sucks). Perversely, the only way to read a PDF is to print it out – which destroys the value of electronic distro. And anyway, SNS’s 20-30 pages are a lot of tree. I’ve been researching a lot this year and I’ve had other things to read; unbelievably, when I checked my SNS folder I was nearly a year behind.

This newsletter costs $595 a year, and I’d gained no value from it since Q4 2010.

That’s important, because publisher Mark Anderson writes about below-the-surface upheavals in macroeconomics and geopolitics that’ll impact the world a year-plus later. Being a year behind puts me back with the rest of the world – you know, the people who think the FT and WSJ are the most intelligent takes on where the economy’s going. (For all they’re worth, they might as well write a daily headline “To hell in a handbasket” and not bother.) SNS draws together disparate threads of business innovation and government policy into reasonable conclusions, and frequently those conclusions tell a very, very different story to the front pages of mainstream media.

So I bought a Kindle. For no other reason than I thought it’d get me back “into” the SNS Newsletter.

The first thing you notice is its beautiful look and feel. (The Kindle, not the newsletter.) You don’t quite “get” e-ink until you’ve used it. Not My Kindleemitting light, it drives no eyeball fatigue and you can read it in bright daylight (or Tube striplight) without pain. The page-turning experience is natural; it weighs less than a paperback and the reading experience is just as immersive. This thing was designed by people who really, really love books. (Only nag here? The page-turning buttons on the left should’ve been inverted, so the lower left button would turn pages back rather than forward.)

But the real work’s in the way the enabling experience – let’s be accurate: the Amazon experience – is replicated. It dog-ears everything for you; no need to insert bookmarks, it’ll just return to the place you left. Your preferences and purchases are saved back at the Big A and if you lose the machine it’s no problem: just deregister it. To get a non-Amazon title (like the PDF’d SNS) onto your Kindle, just email it to your unique kindle address and seconds later it pops up on the gadget. (Don’t forget to put “convert” in the subject line; SNS’s standard PDF is unreadable without it.) It’s as smooth as any iPod.

Other features replicate the social experience of reading. Remember how fascinating it was to come across someone else’s note in a university library book? The Kindle shows you where other people have annotated a passage in whatever you’re reading; you can even broadcast it on Facebook and Twitter. It answers an FHT (Fundamental Human Truth) other e-readers never did: we want other people to know how clever we are.

Next, the 3G. Amazon’s bought up some dwarfstar mass of bandwidth on the world’s wireless networks, and the 3G-enabled version (no phone contract or fee) simply subs for Wifi anywhere, so your Kindle can receive books anywhere and  always-on. I didn’t buy the 3G version and already wish I had. To have a 3G connection where you don’t have to worry about cost-per-megabyte – or contract fees – is amazing, and the fact it’s happening in 100 countries even more so.

Anything missing here? Perhaps it wasn’t legally possible, but what if: for every book you’d ever bought on Amazon, you were entitled to a free downloaded copy? I’ve spent £60 on Day One buying books I already owned.

In summary, a great machine. I’m not sure this will ever be out of my bag again. (And it was really good of them to match the colour to my car, too.)

Mark, I’m up to March.