What are Mobiles?

Mobiles as a category have proven more interesting and more capable with each passing year. The mobile market today has more than 4 billion subscribers, more than two-thirds of whom live in developing countries. Well over a billion new phones are produced each year, a flow of continuous enhancement and innovation that is unprecedented in modern times. The fastest-growing sales segment belongs to smart phones — which means that a massive and increasing number of people all over the world now own and use a computer that fits in their hand and is able to connect to the network wirelessly from virtually anywhere. Tens of thousands of applications designed to support a wide range of tasks on virtually any smart-phone operating system are readily available, with more entering the market all the time. These mobile computing tools have become accepted aids in daily life, giving us on-the-go access to a wide range of tools for business, video/audio capture and basic editing, sensing and measurement, geolocation, social networking, personal productivity, references, just-in-time learning — indeed, virtually anything that can be done on a desktop — and arguably more.

In developed countries, it is quite common for young people to carry their own mobile devices. In the upper grades, it is not at all unusual, indeed commonplace, to find schools in which every student carries a mobile, even if they are not allowed to use them during class. The unprecedented evolution of these devices continues to generate great interest, and their increasing capabilities make them more useful with each new generation of devices. The ability to run third-party applications represents a fundamental change in the way we regard mobiles and opens the door to a myriad of uses for education, entertainment, productivity, and social interaction.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the museums you know best?

  • At the recent MW2010 conference in Denver there was a plethora of applications being presented and developed for the museum sector, with sessions and papers on the subject being amongst the most popular attended. Developers are clambering over each other to tap into this fast developing market.

    Museum are fast realising that they can save costs and retain ownership of content produced for audio and video tours if they can wrestle the production away from tie-ins with third party content developers. Museums are looking at producing there own applications possibly with the aid of developers that allow then to deliver content onto visitors devices, be it iPhone/iTouch or other smart phones in an environment they control.

    Traditionally we have delivered audio and video tours on devices we hand out in the museums. What we are now looking to do is deliver content to devices that visitors can download before visiting the museum to aid there visit and also to virtual visitors that will never step through the doors. Creating so called apps that are stand alone pieces of content or delivering via WiFi in the galleries allowing information to be up-datable as and when change is necessary. We can download data or stream data or even a combination of both we are inviting a much wider audience to see our exhibitions and collections. The museum experience is stepping out of the building! - eric.bates eric.bates Apr 30, 2010

  • Good point above that mobile technologies can provide another alternative to third party content developers. Other advantages: 1) reduction of operational costs as most folks bring their phones and mobile devices with them; 2) relatively inexpensive and efficient applications to create mobile content; 3) object-recognition software for mobile devices that offers broad opportunities for customized and varied interpretation; 4) easy way to involve teens in creating mobile applications in conjunction with exhibitions--giving them "voice" that can then be used by other audiences; 5) mobile apps for parents with young children are expanding quickly, and using this channel is a way to engage parents in early childhood learning techniques; 6) using mobile technologies to facilitate data collection outside the field is one other way to make citizen science project feasible. - elizabeth.babcock elizabeth.babcock May 2, 2010

  • As Eric notes, mobile is one more impetus for museums to think beyond their walls and consider how to serve audiences who can never visit in person. Many if not most museums now get more visitors online than in person, and these only partially overlap with the audiences who visit on-site. As an increasing percentage of web access happens through mobile devices, mobile platforms become a critical way to expand audiences and better fulfill our museums' missions. Mobile is also a compelling environment because it combines social functions with very personal ones. Few objects in our lives are more intimate and ever-present in our lives than our personal mobile devices, especially phones and smartphones. Delivering content directly into someone's ear, or the palm of their hand, is a very privileged mode of access. At the same time, our personal mobile devices are principal tools through which we engage socially through an increasing array of social media platforms. As museums come to understand how best to leverage this powerful combination of the personal and the social, important new ways of being both relevant and impactful for our audiences, onsite and online, are opening up. - nancy.proctor nancy.proctor May 4, 2010nancy.proctor
  • I agree with much of the above. The issues are cost (lowering it), portability, and repurposing of content for both large and small screens. However, as many small museums struggle to keep their websites fresh, adding an additional platform to feed creates additional costs and stretches staff capacities. - john.weber john.weber May 4, 2010[John Weber]

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • 1) Because of the huge number of mobile apps available, it can be difficult to compete. Just as with other museum education programs and initiatives, your app needs to be competitive and it must be marketed. 2) Deciding which third party vendors (if any) you want to engage with to create your mobile strategy can be challenging--the landscape is constantly shifting. 3) If you are considering use of mobile apps in your museum, infrastructure limitations (like limited cell phone coverage/poor signal strength) can be limiting. 4) Institutions needs to coordinate the mobile strategy as an integrated strategy linking museum education to marketing to scientific research. - elizabeth.babcock elizabeth.babcock May 2, 2010

  • The fast rate of change and innovation in mobile platforms is indeed a challenge for museums. Some vendors are responding by offering application authoring and publication platforms that they undertake to keep current for all new emerging devices, so the museum can be assured that its applications will always be current with the technology. This is an appealing offer, as few museums have the bandwidth and resources to test and adapt their applications for every new mobile device that comes out. At the same time, it can tie the museum to a particular vendors platform - at a time when museums were just beginning to emerge from the tyranny of the dedicated audio tour device and shared IP in the content with the audio tour provider! Museums need to think carefully about how mobile fits into their overall interpretation, publication and communications strategies in order to negotiate these emerging business models successfully. Do we build for the long-term, embrace a limited number of mobile platforms we feel we can support in-house in order to retain better control and invest in web standards for our content? Or do we embrace the rapid rate of change and think of mobile applications as 'disposable' both as products and visitor experiences, as Koven Smith has suggested http://kovenjsmith.com/ ? What other options are emerging? - nancy.proctor nancy.proctor May 4, 2010nancy.proctor
  • A meme I picked up from Dave Asheim, President of Guide By Cell: pay attention to Moore's Law. In a few years these phones in our pockets are going to be 20x more powerful than they are today. Couple that with the growth of the mobile phone market and museums have to realize that their visitors are going to be walking in the door with extremely powerful mini computers in the not-too-distant future. So a) museums have to keep their eyes on the long game, not just pounding out the next iPhone app, and b) the demand/opportunity for google or wikipedia -like information access and connectivity from museum patrons (however you want to define patron) are going to be enormous. It ain't just about mobile tours and games. - michael.edson michael.edson May 4, 2010

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on education and interpretation in museums?

  • I know that students are asked not to use mobile phones in classes and I understand why in most cases. But I can also remember when I wasn't allowed to use a calculator in my maths classes!

    As the increased use of data packaged into mobile phone tariffs becomes prevalent, smart phones will be increasingly used to gather information and share experiences. Mobile will become more integrates into education as a tool in every students pencil case or laptop bag. Museums will move away from handing out hand held devices and move over to delivering content to personal devices. - eric.bates eric.bates Apr 30, 2010

  • Huge. The mobile device allows museums to conceivably and successfully reach audiences that are new, along many dimensions. The mobile device allows for relatively inexpensive development that can be customized by the visitor/patron. The mobile learning field also opens up opportunities for meaningfully allowing museum audiences to create content linked to the museum--shifting the learning paradigm from leaner as consumer to learner as content creator. - elizabeth.babcock elizabeth.babcock May 2, 2010
  • I think this is the Big One. Whoever gets this right, wins. Whoever doesn't find a way to expand into this area falls significantly behind. What getting it right means is the question, and paying for it. The impact is the bring the museum home, put your relationship with it in your pocket in an entirely new way, and allow you to share that relationship with others. - john.weber john.weber May 4, 2010[John Weber]
  • I agree that the potential of mobile and its facilities for personalizing the user experience is huge. I'd be careful, though, about assuming that there will be major cost reductions in authoring and managing content. Quality content requires significant investment in time and/or money on any platform. Even if the majority of the content is user-generated, savings in content production can easily be eaten up in managing the social media experience and marketing it to potential 'creators' - who are the minority of our visitors anyway. However, with that caveat, one of the most exciting aspects of mobile interpretation is precisely how much easier and faster it is to personalize the experience through mobile social media functions. This is largely unexplored territory for museums; we need lots of experiments to learn how to realize the educational potential of mobile social media. - nancy.proctor nancy.proctor May 4, 2010nancy.proctor
  • Ubiquitous, cheap, global access to museum data and "networks" writ large. The big story is that the core work of museums will change to adapt to the implications of this revolution: the small, page 6 story will be the small, opportunistic projects museums do between now and then. - michael.edson michael.edson May 4, 2010

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

Please share information about related projects in our Horizon Project sharing form.