Linux Lunacy 2003: Cruising the Big Picture, Part I
The urge to defy gravity with architecture always has been invested in gargantuan constructions, from pyramids to cathedrals to dirigibles to high-rise buildings. Now some of the world's largest buildings have hulls. Think of today's giant cruise ship as the aquatic equivalent of a high-rise: a long-float.
The Queen Mary 2 recently launched from France, setting a new record size for a cruise ship. It's 1,131 feet long, 21 stories high, carries 2,600 passengers and weighs in at 150,000 gross registered tons. (A "grt" actually is a measure of volume rather than weight. One grt is 100 cubic feet.) A week earlier, Royal Caribbean upstaged the Queen Mary 2's launch by announcing its purchase of an Ultra Voyager, which can accommodate 3,600 passengers and a crew of 1,400. The announcement didn't mention gross tonnage, but it did say the ship is 15% bigger than the rest of the line's gigantic cruise ships, which run in the 140,000 grt range. The Star Princess, one of the large ladies of the P&O Princess fleet, was docked right behind the Amsterdam in Seattle, and it followed us through the whole cruise. The Star Princess is a mere 110,000 tons and looked immense from all angles, including one from above. In Juneau we were able to look down from atop the Mt. Rogers tram and see the golf course on the the ship's top deck.
If there's a limiting factor to nautical gigantism, it's the Panama Canal. Built in the first decade of the last century to accommodate several ships in one lock, it now serves the same purpose as the box at airport counters that tells you the outer limits of your carry-on luggage dimensions. Ships that wish to navigate the Canal have to fit in locks that are 1,000 feet long, 110 feet wide and 70 feet deep. They can bloom out in five directions above the dock line, but otherwise need to fit in that box with at least a few feet to spare on all sides. Of course, ships that don't bother with the canal can be as big as they please. The current record holder is the Jahre Viking supertanker, at 1,504 feet long and 260,851 grt. Needless to say, it's not a Canal-compliant vessel.
Although The Cruise People Ltd. put the Amsterdam at the bottom of their largest passenger ship list (it's 88th), it's plenty huge at more than 61,000 grt. The boat has a passenger capacity of 1,380, three sets of elevators (each with four apiece, totalling twelve) that run to eleven levels, two pools, a casino, several vast dining rooms, plus enough meeting rooms, bars, nightclubs, theaters and other facilities to qualify as a city block of fine upscale hotels. The Amsterdam also is the flagship of the Holland America line and is less than three years old. We were told on board that employees on other ships in the fleet are rewarded for good work by moving up to the Amsterdam. The last two Linux Lunacies traveled aboard the M.S. Maasdam, which also is an excellent ship. But the Amsterdam clearly is a cut above. The service is so tireless and professional that it's rare to go a day without seeing somebody cleaning a counter or polishing a fixture. The food is excellent, too, especially considering the large number of people being fed on a near-constant basis.
Seattle, that notoriously (though not exceptionally) wet city, had an extremely dry summer this year. Although the drought burned up countless lawns (nobody sprinkles in Seattle), it also gave us near-perfect departure weather. Mt. Ranier loomed large behind the city as we eased out of the port and went northward up Puget Sound.
Our companions on the outbound lanes were container cargo ships that provide a useful lesson for the software business, which traditionally has loathed the threat that commoditization poses to vast profit margins. Yet the Port of Seattle, like all the ship and freight depots of the world, abundantly demonstrates the fecundity of commodities as a base ecology of business.
Sure, bits by themselves may be as free as air--or even more free, as it's a cloneable commodity--but that doesn't mean there's no money to be made in storing, shipping, managing or building with them. Tempting as it is to look toward Microsoft (especially in Seattle) as a prototypical software company, the better view is toward IBM, Oracle, SAP and Computer Associates--all of which constantly are adjusting to take advantage of Linux as a building material and open source as a building method.
After the evening's cocktail party up in the Crows Nest lounge, and as the lights of towns on the US and Canadian coasts faded into the black distance under the stars, I went down to the Internet Cafe, where I had signed up for a week's worth of Internet access by Wi-Fi (an essential grace of Geek Cruising). There I looked up software commoditization and found "Commoditization: The Innovator's Opening" by Ian Murdock (of Debian fame). He concludes with this:
The key thing technologists need to think about is innovating in their business models as much as (if not more than) innovating in their technology. Of course, it's a natural trap for the technologist to think about technology alone, but technology is but a small part of the technology business . Look for your competition's Achilles' heel, which more often than not is an outdated business model in a changing world, not technology. To attack your competition with technology alone is to charge the giants head on, and this approach is doomed to failure the vast majority of the time.
That's a nice answer to both John Carroll's "The Commoditization of Software" and Bruce Sterling's "Freedom's Dark Side" (dredged up by the same search). Both writers worry about what could happen to the software business after freedom and openness get through with it. Ian's simple answer is to leverage something other than the code. It ain't that hard a concept to grasp. (Hell, Ian did it himself with Debian and Progeny.) My favorite Don Marti line is "Information wants to be $6.95". Watching the cargo ships go by, I found myself thinking, "that's what your basic containers tend to cost".
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal
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