Web apps and native apps for museums: Museums & Mobile 2011

Museums are going mobile, and many companies are eager to help. At yesterday’s Museums & Mobile 2011 online conference, several vendors promoted their wares. This is a summary of products, approaches, and some alternatives…

Web sites for mobile devices (web apps)

The easiest way to go mobile is to have a web site formatted for the small screen — often called a “web app.” Robert Pyles, CEO of TourSphere, advocates for web apps, saying “part of the mission of museums is maximum accessibility, and reaching as many people as possible,” which he says web apps allow. They are easier to edit than native apps, and will work on future devices that don’t exist yet. The downsides  are that devices need to be online to work (either on the cellular network, or by installing wireless routers in the museum), and interactivity is limited compared to a native app.

These companies offer web-based content management systems (akin to a blog engine) for quickly making mobile-friendly web sites.

TourSphere — For $399/month, no contracts, they will give you a web site at their domain, e.g., YourMuseum.TourSphere.com, with several templates, a media manager, maps, multiple languages, links to your current site via RSS, keypad navigation, surveys, and some other features. Pyles says, “Depending on the complexity of the app you can do get something going in one to three days.” Customers can make a full backup of all their data and images. Their sister company, Audissey Media, offers audio/video production, providing an easy way to produce additional content. They plan to launch a public beta next month at Museums and the Web 2011, and also plan to make native apps.

Guide by Cell — The “MOBI site” product produces a bare-bones mobile web site. Using an online administrative site, museum staff chooses items, uploads media (e.g., audio tour recordings), and enters text. The visitor’s interface on the phone is a scrollable list of items, which can be objects or topics. The system is suitable for a few dozen pages/topics. Pricing not disclosed.

Kanvasys — Offers web-formatted web sites, edited via their CMS. Pricing not disclosed.

Alternatives: A cheap and easy alternative to these services is to use the WordPress blog engine and the $40 WPtouch plugin. You can set up any suite of pages and posts, browsable by tag, delivering information and a tour. (You would not have keypad navigation, surveys or other interactive features of TourSphere.) If you want to put an extensive collection onto mobile devices, you’ll probably need a collection management system. Two options are the mobile plugins for the open-source Omeka, or using custom plugins and themes in the commercial, cloud-based eHive.

Native apps — semi automated

Native apps can be a better experiences than web apps. The apps can be preloaded on rental iPods at a museum, or downloaded to visitor’s phones/tablets, ready to launch. Apps are popular: There are currently 369k apps for Apple devices (77k publishers); 295k apps for Android devices; and 11k apps for Windows 7 devices (4k publishers).

Native apps are expensive and time consuming to create from scratch. Costs rapidly exceed $20k for a small app, and the development process strips museum staff of control. Costs are inflated because app development is new (since March 2008 for Apple, and August 2008 for Android), so there are fewer app programmers than web developers (since the mid 1990s).

To cut costs and speed development, several companies offer a semi-automated, modular approach, in which content and programming are separate. Museum staff can create the content (via a Content Management System, CMS), and the vendor’s programmers create a placeholder-based app with fixed bins for content. The app consists of filling the predefined bins with content from the CMS. Vendors differ in the features they offer (audio tours, calendar, panoramic images, movies, etc.), how much time it takes for updates to reach the app (instantaneous or a few days), the underlying speed and elegance of their user interfaces.

GuideOne — Their CMS is called “G1 Curator CMS” and they only target Apple devices. Their preset modules include: audio tours, zoomable floor maps and images, scavenger hunts and quizzes, membership/donation features, and links to social networks. According to Juan Sanabria, head of product development. the costs vary widely, from $12k to over $100k, with a typical price around $25k. They don’t have standardized pricing yet. Their apps are used on the floor in museums, and are not in the app store. The Detroit Institute of Arts has been distributing iPads with their app since March 2010, the Chrysler Museum of Art has been distributing a fleet of iPods since mid February 2011. An app related to Alaskan Natives is launching later this year.

Kanvasys — Based in Gatineau, Québec. Offers a variety of services for iOS and Android. The costs vary widely, from $8k to over $100k, with a typical price around $25k. Their free Eco-Odyssée app was released in Dec 2010, but has fewer than 3 ratings. They have 3 more apps available later this year. Their apps work online and offline, and content can be edited via a web-based CMS.

LookBackMaps — Free. Created by Jon Voss in 2008, this system was designed to provide mobile access to historical photos in various online archives. Museums or archives can create an account, and submit photos, location info (lat/lon), and some other meta data, and the site will make the image available to users via their mobile web site. The app has 3/5 stars rating in the Apple App Store.

MobileXpeditions —  Based in Dublin, OH. The company founders previously ran a Macintosh development company. Their first museum app is in the works for Ohio’s COSI (Center of Science and Industry). According to co-founder Mark Gilicinski, they are not sure about pricing, but hope to charge around $10k or less for apps. They are building a CMS. They currently have one art-related iPad app, which is used on Celebrity Cruise lines as a walking tour of contemporary art on their Solstice ships (2,850 passengers).

NOUSguide — Coming from a background of creating handheld audio guides for European museums, Nousguide has made the jump to commodity hardware. According to CEO Alexander Stickelberger, “we have long term relationships with our clients, and all of them shifted to the Apple iOS or Android devices.” NOUS can deliver apps (see list), or a full package with sturdy cases for an iPod Touch. NOUS has an extra focus on accessability, and has incorporated sign language in several apps. They also design the apps to work with or without network coverage. Stickelberger says the costs for an app for the app store is in the ballpark of $10-25k. That includes streaming content, and various interactive features. Adding their Mac-based CMS, the “NOUS Conductor CMS” in their all-in-one solution adds $25k.

NOUS’ SFMOMA Rooftop Garden iPod/iPhone app is free, released Jan 2010, has accumulated 33 ratings in 14 months, 3/5 stars; the sister iPad app released April 2010, also free, has 79 ratings, 3/5 stars. Stickelberger says their Red Bull Hangar-7 museum app has a couple thousand downloads every week. They publish apps under their name, and also white label under the brands of museums. Approx 50 apps are public (in the app stores), and another 100+ are distributed only within a museum.

Toura — Depending on the features and the target devices (Apple or Android), program director Chris Alexander said the cost is approx $5-20k, negotiated per client. According to their marketing rep, Christina Daigneault, the cost depends on how many apps a museum buys, the features they activate, which platforms (Apple and/or Android), and how long they want the app to be in the app store. When museum staff is done creating content with the CMS, with two-day turnaround, Toura programmers deliver a working app which can be tested or submitted to an app store. Currently, Toura has published 21 apps in the Apple app store, and 11 in the Android app store.

Toura’s most popular app is British Library: Treasures. The app was featured in Apple’s app store in mid January and was a top education app, but as is typical, download rates plummeted when it was no longer featured. The $4 iPhone app has 10 reviews in the UK and US, averaging 3.9/5 stars. The $6 iPad app has 41 reviews, averaging 3.3/5 stars; the Android versions have 35 ratings, and a rating of 2.5/5. The second most popular app is French Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago, which has 14 ratings in the Apple app store, 3.3/5 stars; and 11 ratings in the Android store, 4/5 stars. According to the Android marketplace, both Android apps have been purchased between 100-500 times.

Native apps — fully outsourced

To make a totally custom app, museums will hire design/development firms. This is costs more, makes edits harder if not impossible, and can yield better results. Often these companies have a pool of source code they can re-use from project to project.

LookBackMaps — Based in San Francisco. Jon Voss’ team also offers simple native apps, starting at $1-2k. Their first custom app for Historic New Orleans was released earlier this month.

Nousguide — NOUS, listed above, also offers full development services.

Tristan Interactive —Their free Infinity of Nations app for Smithsonian was released October 2010, has 13 ratings, 3.5/5 stars. Their free Canadian Museum of Civilization app, released Dec 2010 has 32 ratings, and 3.5/5 stars. Pricing not disclosed.

Alternative: The field is expanding. There are currently 77k publishers for apps on Apple devices. There are other museum-focused app developers (see vendors at MW2011 in April), and thousands of generic developers.

Audio production

Regardless of the methods used, if you have audio or video, someone has to produce it. The vendor, Earprint Productions, promoted their content design, audio production and digital storytelling. They have worked with several museums.

Alternative: If you write scripts in-house, tons a great voice talent can be easily auditioned and hired within a matter of days via voice123.com. Those audio producers will deliver great audio, inexpensively. Many voices are seasoned radio announcers. I’ll cover games in a follow up article.


Another type of app is games, which can be appealing for some museums. Two vendors who showed their games are SCVNGR and Hide&Seek.

Update: Added new data for NOUS. Update 2: and Kanvasys.


3 comments on Web apps and native apps for museums: Museums & Mobile 2011

IDEA » Mobile product development principles – from Smithsonian

31 Mar 2011, 5:17 pm

[…] Nancy suggests that mobile web sites (web apps) can and should created by a museum’s existing web team. It’s just a matter of formatting for a smaller screen. On the other hand, native apps (e.g., an app for an iPad) may be a better candidate for an external vendor. (See our post about making web/native apps.) […]


Mobile web vs smartphone apps for museums | The Contemporary Museum

04 Jun 2012, 9:34 pm

[…] the semantics of hybrids, platforms, apps, etc, that has been done here and here or you can see a list of vendors. For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to call the Mobile Web: mobile friendly website […]


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