The Parallel Worlds Of Gondolas And iPads

When we arrived in Venice last week, I could not locate a single car. Only gondolas and transport boats peppered the waterfront. The gondolas earn top billing and represent an ancient, longstanding form of innovation and transportation. Will today’s innovations, such as the iPad, endure over 500 years of popularity?

When we arrived in Venice last week, I could not locate a single car. Only gondolas and transport boats peppered the waterfront. After hundreds of years, the transportation system has barely changed. The gondola, a marvelous, ancient rowing craft, is part of a complex web of commercial and passenger interdependence and has withstood the test of time. Will today’s game-changing mobile innovations be able to boast the same infamy?

While we revel in the impact of mobile technology on our daily lives, think about how the gondola–one of the first mobile innovations to navigate the ancient Venetian canals–has endured centuries of social, economic, and political changes. In many ways, the gondola’s rich history and stability remind me of how mobile technology has gained market dominance. I’m also intrigued by the parallels between the gondola and Apple’s winning product streak:

    1. Few boatbuilders (squeri) own the market. Yes–after 750 years, only three companies still own the secret sauce. Imagine owning your market for hundreds of years without fear of competitors stealing market share. Apple’s competitors are still jockeying for second and third position, and one–Samsung–has paid dearly for imitating Apple’s user interface.
    2. People are willing to pay top dollar for a gondola experience. As of this writing, the cost of a forty minute ride is eighty Euros — approximately 125 US dollars. The price is non-negotiable. Many tourists pay extra for musicians. Just imagine Apple’s profit margins on their devices and genius bars. Why bother with promotions when you have crowds lining up for hours in anticipation of your next release?
    3. Earning a gondoliere license is a tradition and a privilege. Gondolieres, as they are known, keep canal chaos to a minimum. Magnus and I watched with wonder as our gondoliere gracefully traversed the narrow Venetian canals. He was never fazed by the wave-producing passenger boats (vaporetti) that serve as public transport. When the polizia careened by our gondola in hot pursuit– leaving all boats in its wake — he calmly pulled aside, keeping us out of harm’s way. I have no idea how he could gracefully glide the oar through those canals, but I knew he had years of experience under his belt. Apple makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to understand the inner workings of their operating system. I revere the technical support teams when I need to call them. And frankly, I don’t really want to know how the device works internally. After nearly 30 years of watching Apple survive challenging and awe-inspiring moments, I believe in their ability to make reliable, durable devices.
    4. The gondola’s appearance is distinctive. You won’t find rowboats, canoes, or any other boat that remotely resembles a gondola.


The The ferro, a sturdy iron symbol placed at the stem, is festooned with six “teeth” which represent the six districts of Venice. The top of the ferro represents the Doge of Venice’s hat. The Doges ruled the Venetian republic for centuries, and cited gondolas as early as the 11th century in their letters. You can spot Apple’s distinctive devices from any distance because they have maintained a common “ferro” of their own for the past decade. Apple products don’t just represent sleek design and intuitive user interfaces. They have also spawned an accessory cottage industry.

While Venice’s economic and architectural infrastructure continues to crumble, their timeless designs and traditions stay strong. How will our own mobile innovations be remembered in 500 years?


This post originally appeared in FastCompany

copyright 2012, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.

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