Just what is a Mobile Museum?

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Just what is a Mobile Museum?

By: Joe Hoover | Information Technology | September 8, 2010
Images of mobile devices including cellphones and calculators

Some words about "mobile"...

"Mobile Museum" is as widely talked about now days as it is widely misunderstood. Museums talk about mobile tours but without little clarification of just what mobile means.  Organizations stumble headlong into the world of mobile and others wish and plan to do so, and as the old saying goes - "be careful what you wish for"

Remember this - a handheld calculator can also be considered a "mobile" device, so define just what mobile is in your organization and if you’re working with a team of people make sure that everyone is in agreement as to what the definitions and perceptions are. Case in point, what is the difference between a cell phone tour vs. a mobile tour? Perhaps nothing, but it can be very different.

Take a tour

A cell phone tour can mean dial up to listen to a prerecorded message on an object or place. A mobile tour can mean that AND it can also mean downloading podcast episodes on your MP3 player and going for a walk. Maybe mobile means the "Mobile web browser" and you use your mobile phone's web browser to access a tour on a mobile designed web site. These web sites vary greatly some can look primitive and can only function on in a mobile phone browser only with the greatest of effort, others can be slick sites that are also considered "web browser apps" that mimic many (but not all) of the functionality of a "mobile app"

Which brings us to our next level of mobile tour - download a "mobile app" to your device be it a iPhone, iPad or iTouch (...or Android device) and proceed to go on a tour where the data on the mobile app changes and updates in real-time and not only do you receive information on your tour, you can add your own comments, photos and interact with others on the tour. Dynamic data is also something a web app can do, however, a mobile app also allows you to access many features of your mobile device like the camera, microphone, accelerometer, GPS, etc... A web browser app that operates from the web browser cannot. This allows your device to capture 2D barcodes, recording and uploading of photos, video and audio. It also can allow position recognition and know where you are in relation to a place or a museum object.

The worst mobile apps are the ones that do not take advantage of web connectivity and are bloated space hogging mobile applications that contact all the information within the app itself instead of accessing it as needed from a web database. Example: at 54MB the American Museum of Natural History's Dinosaur iPhone app is a good example. Many of the well-designed apps don't go over 2-3MB. There may be reasons to create a jumbo app, such as a critical need to work even if the web connection is down or maybe the tour is in an area without internet or mobile phone service. If the museum building itself cannot get internet/mobile phone reception that should be addressed before the mobile app is built in the first place.

From a marketing point-of-view, getting the person to keep the app on their mobile device long after the tour or museum visit creates a long term relationship which you can refresh with an update of the mobile app. Space hogging apps or one-trick-ponies that focus only on a particular tour or exhibit won’t stick around on the device for long.

Your mobile ready web site...

While it is a good idea that your organization's web site should be mobile ready, it is important to understand just what that means.

First, if you have heard of the mobile domain extension ".mobi" do not buy it. It is fairly worthless. Instead you have several other options. First, if your web site  is correctly coded using style sheets then you could reformat your web site using style sheets aimed at mobile devices and mobile specific JavaScript.

Secondly, you can just as easily (and cheaper) create a subdomain for your mobile content instead of using a new domain name with the extension .mobi. As an example,  see how the Walker Art Center handles its web site for mobile devices.
Mobile: m.walkerart.org
Non-mobile: www.walkerart.org
You already own/lease your domain name no need to get a second one when you can just create a subdomain for your current domain.

Lastly, many smart mobile devices have already built browsers to handle traditional web sites, so even if you do nothing it is getting easier for people to view it via mobile device. But even if you wish to go the extra mile and design your site for a web mobile device you probably don't (and should not) have to replicate all the content on your traditional site. Hopefully you have some type of analytics collecting web traffic data. Google analytics allows you to track mobile device use. You should see what pages get accessed via mobile (and where) and build your mobile site accordingly with the content mobile users want.

I leave you with a table created by Nancy Proctor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum that compares the platform to the type of content it supports, which serves as a reminder it is important first to define your objectives, then to define the technology you need.

Mobile device comparison chart