Free, open and mobile. An open platform solution changes the rules of the game into museums.

Alex Palin, izi.TRAVEL, The Netherlands

During this one-hour session, will cover different aspects of using open platforms for publishing content from museums, employing modern mobile technologies – as well as give a workshop on creating high-quality content for mobile audio guides.Part 1 will cover the theory behind widely available open platforms and open content. Part 2 will offer hands-on experience of creating texts, images, audio and video for your museum’s audio guide, and publishing it online. Agenda for the session: Part 1. The Benefits of Open Platforms and Open Content 1.1. Open and free platforms● What are open platforms and how do museums already use them? (Google Art Project, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr etc)● What is open content (with examples)?● How does it all work together? Success stories from real-life museums and cities, plus the synergy of a 'smart city'● Open standard as the communication tool between open platforms and open content 1.2. Accessing the open content● Why is focusing on high-quality content – and not on technology – so important?● How to get the right content: a sample checklist for creating exciting content (with examples)● What benefits does the open content bring? Part 2. Workshop: Create Your Own Mobile Audio Guide in 30 minutes ● Introduction to's open platform● Introduction to the workshop● Content creation: writing texts, making the audio, images and video● Uploading content to the CMS● Live presentation of the results● Marketing your audio guide● Advanced features in mobile platforms Conclusion Q&A

Keywords: how-to, workshop, audio guide, free, open

1. Introduction

Museums have known and used audio guide systems for more than 50 years. The technologies evolved from radios to Walkmans and later to CD-players and MP3-players, until mobile phones came onto the scene. Since then, the situation has dramatically changed: visitors can now bring their own devices. From this moment a brand new market started to appear: the Mobile Traveler Guide (MTG) market.

The fast pace of the modern mobile technologies definitely caught the museum world unprepared. How to use it? What should be delivered and who should develop it? Where to find experts? How much should we invest?

But even with the help from the experts the typical approach was and still is: “We have to develop our own app!” As a result, some museums invest millions in developing apps or do not invest at all. E.g. last summer the Bloomberg foundation granted $15M to the 5 top American museums to develop their own apps. Their smaller and less funded colleagues are watching those great projects and dreaming about finding a few hundreds of thousands of Euros to start their own project.

This paper challenges the whole idea that museums should invest even a penny in mobile technology at all, and argues that museum curators can now focus on what they can do best: creating stories about their collections, and forget about the technology.

We are going to demonstrate that with the use of modern open and free platforms, museums can launch the mobile audio guide in a matter of weeks without cost and even use it to attract funding for multimedia content development. Museum curators can now devote themselves to content, writing stories for their different kinds of visitors.

2. Current situation

Before we explain the ideal solution, we would like to explore the current situation in the Mobile Travel Guide Market (MTG market). We would like to look at the situation from two angles:

  • From the museum’s point of view
  • From the app developer’s point of view

2.1.  Museums and City Visitors

Back in 2011, we encountered a case in Sweden: 3 different and well-known museums (Vasa, Skansen, Nordiska), 300 meters apart from each other, were each developing their own applications.

Although it sounds like a natural approach, let us consider the consequences:

  1. Consequences for the Museums:
  • The app development costs money and human resources, as the development should cover all different operating systems: iOS, Android, Windows, Web.
  • App development never stops. New features, bugs, and updates are required to catch up with the latest OS or new mobile technologies etc. Once begun, it lasts forever.
  • Museums become bound to particular app developers. The costs of switching are too high. The app developers know that, therefore the initial costs are always low. Later on they make up for it all.
  • There are high risks that something will go wrong. Museums are not mobile technology experts and it is hard for them to even specify a vision of their mobile future, let alone functional requirements for the developers.
  1. Consequences for the visitors:
  • In every museum the visitor has to download yet another app, a different one with a different interface, filling up their devices with dozens of apps probably used only once a time.
  • Visitors have to struggle with dozens of apps and interfaces per city.

As we can see, the result does not look attractive and comfortable for users and dangerously expensive for museums.

What would be the ideal situation for museums and their visitors?

For Museums:

  • Not to get involved in the software development at all and to get all needed high quality mobile audio guide software for free
  • To see different vendors developing the best software via strong competition
  • To focus on what they can do best: to create stories about their collections

For Visitors:

  • To get easy access to all needed content of all museums within one app of their choice
  • To have a choice to select the best app from the competitive market
  • Not to bother with data roaming charges etc.

2.2. Application Vendors

When started in 2011, did deep research into the market for mobile apps for museums and city visitors. First of all, we gave this market a name: Mobile Travel Guide Market, or MTG market.

We found more than 100 startups that struggled to deliver MTG services. There are 2 groups of them: the first one develops city guides and the second makes mobile apps for museums. It is interesting that none of them were aiming to develop a solution for both museums and city tours.

Most of the museum app developers have the following strategy:

  • Make a tailored app for the museum and get a customer for many years ahead.
  • Share the copyrights for the content with the museum to ensure that museum cannot change the app provider.

Some of them merged with a big system integrator, e.g. Tristan was sold to Acoustiguide, but such cases are rare.

The city audio guide developers have the following strategy:

  • Create the application for the local market
  • Develop some content for this local market
  • Sell the solution itself, e.g. via local hotels

We call them CSP ‒ Complete Solution Providers. The CSP’s strategy doesn’t seem to be effective because:

  • It is very difficult to earn enough money in a small local market.
  • Even if they go international (like Pocket Guide), it is still difficult, as their solution is closed: nobody else but them can create content for the platform.
  • Travelers prefer free solutions and they prefer to have an app with content that covers the whole world.

No CSP can reach this level with a local and closed strategy.

3.  We live in a world of free and open platforms

In our everyday lives, for our everyday tasks we always experience the use of free and open platforms.

Systems like Gmail, Skype, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest are the toolbox we use for working and communicating with people.

  • Before free and open Gmail, we had to invest a fortune on setting up and maintaining email servers
  • Before free and open Skype we had to pay for long-distance calls and could not even dream of free video conferencing
  • Before free and open Instagram we had to develop our own web servers to share photos
  • Before free and open Youtube we hardly could find any video online

Gmail, Skype, Instagram, Youtube: they all have one thing in common – they are free and open platforms. So, why don’t we simply introduce a free and open platform for creating and using mobile audio or multimedia guides?

That is what we have done at The platform consists of two components:

  • For the visitors: A set of mobile apps for all possible platforms: native apps for iOS/Android/Windows and Web Apps for mobile and desktop web browsers.
  • For museums and the content providers: A CMS – Content Management System – with a convenient Web interface for indoor or outdoor guided tours.

Of course the platform should have all the features which are “must to have” for the modern apps:

  • On-line/off-line functionality to cut roaming costs
  • Sharing the content to Facebook and other systems
  • GPS triggering for outdoor tours
  • Multi-language, etc.

It is also very important to explain what the words “open and free” mean in this context:

  • OPEN means that any museum or content provider can upload/delete their content in the CMS and keep the ownership of the content.
  • OPEN also means that any user’s application may get access to the content.
  • FREE means that it is free for museums, content providers, applications and users.

There are a few mobile audio guide platforms in the World. Some of them, like IZI.Travel, are open and free.

But this simple idea to use the platform raises a few very important issues of which museums should be aware before engaging with active use of mobile multimedia platforms.

3.1. Mobile Travel Guide market needs to be structured into a proper value chain

Any developed market has a so-called value chain, where different companies specialize in different functions along the value chain. We see the Mobile Travel Guide (MTG) market’s value chain as following:

  • Content owners such as museums, cities, tourist attraction owners etc.
  • Professional content developers helping content owners to create the stories
  • Museum system integrators assembling the complete system, adding hardware for audioguides if needed
  • MTG Platform for collecting and distributing the content
  • App developers creating apps that are able to access the data from the MTG Platform
  • End users, the visitors, able to use one app of their own choice for every museum and city.

This approach allows:

  • Stakeholders to focus on what they can do best, thus saving a lot of resources, including financial.
  • Professional service providers can serve millions of small museums and cities.
  • Museums own their content and concentrate on the creation of stories.
  • The facilitation of competition among app developers, leading to a better quality/price ratio.

3.2. Museums should own their content

Historically, the content of museum audio guides did not belong to museums. The reason is simple: the supplier of the hardware audio guide prefered to keep (or share) the copyright so that museum cannot switch to another supplier. Museums were, and some still are, shackled with handcuffs by these copyrights.

We suggest breaking these handcuffs. Museums have to make sure the content belongs only to them. Let us explore it further and visualize the benefits of museums retaining the copyright on their content.

  • First of all, the museum can upload its content to different apps and platforms
  • It allows many apps to compete in their functionality using the same content, which in turn:
    • Allows museums to avoid having to manually control the functionality of apps
    • Brings the best apps to the market via fierce competition
    • Allows visitors to choose the app they really like
  • It assumes that the content will outlive any technology. A technology lives for ~5 years. Great content lives for ~30 years and more. The company that develops the platform cares about the technologies, museums are finally free to care about the content.
  • If the content outlives the technology, with +30 years of amortization, museums can invest heavily in outstanding quality for the content, getting more customers right now.
  • If the content belongs to the museum and lasts for ages, it allows them to attract more funding from sponsors. As modern platforms allow the creation of a first audio guide in a matter of weeks, museums can easily demonstrate the system “up and running” to sponsors and explain that the only component that is missing is great quality content.

As we can see, the simple statement “Museums should own their content” leads to:

  • Great quality content
  • Possibility to attract more funding
  • Less hassle for museums with technology
  • Greater user satisfaction right now and more visitor engagement.

3.3. Going beyond the walls

Modern mobile phones have GPS. It means that the telephone can tell the right story in the right place. Our CMS allows museums to create city tours in a matter of hours, thus expanding the walls of the museum! If such tours start in the tourist information office, the museum has a great opportunity to attract visitors at the tourist office to the guided tour, and later on to invite them from the tour to the museum.

3.4. The audio guide is an “ongoing story”

A typical approach to the audio guide is “Make it once and forget it.” The reason is simple: it is very difficult to change anything in the hardware-based audio guide.

The platform approach assumes that the museum can change/upload data on daily basis via a convenient CMS. It is very similar to a website management: museums update their websites on a daily basis with a web-CMS.

Museums accept that their website is a never-ending project. Why should the audio guide not be managed in the same way? Changing and updating the stories, creating new museum or city tours, attracting volunteers and initiating students’ projects. A mobile multimedia platform provides endless opportunities to deliver your stories to your visitors for many years to come. And all these stories will belong to you.

4. Conclusion

The mobile revolution is fast and sometimes very frightening. There are 32 million people who access content through mobile devices and this number is increasing every month.

Almost 5 years ago, museums discovered new phenomena: open and free platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google Art project, Instagram. Museums started to participate in these platforms because they wanted to leverage the huge amount of users. Sree Sreenivasan from Metropolitan Museum suggested a very useful analogy to this phenomena: “Imagine that your own website is your own country in the territory of the Internet. Then you may consider your accounts in Youtube or Facebook as your Embassies in other countries. You do not control those other countries. You just participate.”

Museums definitely want to invest in mobile solutions but they face some difficulties. Their main concerns are related to:

  • lack of funds, especially for small and medium museums;
  • lack of specialists devoted to planing digital experiences, so they are afraid to make wrong decisions;
  • fear that the virtual experience can decrease the in-situ number of visitors.

Right now the only way for them to use mobile technology is to invest in the development of their own museum app. Big museums can afford either for budget reasons (to our knowledge such projects cost from € 200k to € 2M), but also because they are more structured and can count on internal professionals devoted to mobile projects. For small and medium museums a mobile audio guide is an almost unreachable goal.’s idea to use a mobile audio guide platform instead of developing an app for every new museum allows museums to become the part of this revolution without any costs and without bothering with any technological concerns. We suggest museums dedicate themselves to what they do best: developing the content, creating the stories which will outlive any technology.

Even ours.

By the way, the three museums in Stockholm still have not developed their own audio guides yet…


AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF MUSEUMS, Mobile technology Survey (2011)

FALK, J. H., Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, Walnut Creek (CA) (2009).

ITU (INTERNATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATION UNION), World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators database, (2013)

KATZ, J. LABAR, W. LYNCH, E., Creativity and Technology: Social Media, Mobiles and Museums, (2011).

PROCTOR, N., Mobile Apps for Museums, (2011)

SIMON, N., The Participatory Museum, Santa Cruz (CA), (2010)

Cite as:
A. Palin, Free, open and mobile. An open platform solution changes the rules of the game into museums.. In Museums and the Web Asia 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published September 16, 2014. Consulted .