Going Mobile: Implications of mobile technology uptake for Cultural Organizations

By Marcus J Wilson, Pooka.Pro

It is forecast that mobile web access will overtake web access by traditional computers within the next three years.  That is – users of the Internet will be more likely to want to view your website on a handheld mobile device than from a desktop or laptop computer.  But how many of us are confident that our website even displays properly across mobile devices?

If your website was designed even three or four years ago, it’s likely that it wasn’t designed with mobile phones in mind, and that could become a real problem for your organization in the years ahead.  Various emulators for different mobile Operating Systems can be downloaded, but these can be tricky and time consuming to set up, so you may find it easier to go down to your local technology store and view your website on the various display models there.

The proliferation of mobile operating systems now widely used–alongside the need to support competing modern browsers as well as previous versions of the most popular browsers–means that there are more considerations that ever when developing your website.  There are decisions to be made regarding the presentation of your information for different types of device, as well as decisions relating to the accessibility of the technologies used within your website.

One thing is for certain …  If your website uses Flash technology to display animated graphics, video or even to embed audio content, this content will not be accessible on many mobile devices – and it will not be accessible on mobile devices made by Apple (iPods, iPhones, iPads).

Recently Adobe, the authors of Flash, announced that they would cease Flash development for mobile devices, essentially marking the end of support for Flash technology on the web.  This decision was partly due to Apple’s decision not to support Flash on its devices.  However, it is also due to the development of a new technology – HTML5.

HTML5 is the emerging standard for the web, and can be used to provide a lot of the functionality demanded by the modern web that was not available in earlier versions of HTML – such as animation, the presentation of audio and video and finding the geographic location of the website user.

HTML5’s companion technology, CSS3, allows much more flexibility in the design and graphical presentation of your website across a range of devices.  This will allow you, for instance, to present a very different looking version of your website depending on whether the user is viewing it on a computer screen or small handheld device.

The good news is that HTML5 and CSS3 are supported across pretty much all modern mobile devices, and implemented across most recent versions of the main desktop web browsers.  If you are looking to redevelop your website, you should check that your web developer is future-proofing your website to work with these emerging technologies.

HTML5 also has majors implication for Apps – those handy or entertaining little programmes or games you can download for your mobile device from App Stores.

The mobile marketplace has become incredibly fragmented, with a variety of different platforms to cater for – Apple’s iOS, Android, Blackberry OS and Windows Mobile.  To develop an App that is accessible to the majority of your audience members would now require you to code that App for at least three mobile Operating Systems, and promote that App through a range of different App Stores.  Unless you have money to burn, this isn’t within the reach of most cultural organisations.  Neither does it represent money well spent in most cases.

However, HTML5 could be an ‘App killer’.  HTML5 will allow you to leverage most of the functionality contained within Apps, including geo-location, and it is accessible across platforms.  That is, you only need to develop one version of your HTML5 App, and it will work across all mobile devices, as well as desktop computers – and potentially all through your own website, without the need to submit or promote your App within a range of App Stores.

So, does this mark the death of the App?  Well, not necessarily.  App Stores are still a useful way of promoting and selling your premium App to a global audience that is not perhaps going to find your website of their own accord.  It’s also in the interests of hardware providers like Apple and Blackberry to ensure that they retain the rights to distribute unique content for their hardware to help them retain a clear competitive edge in a marketplace that is growing ever more competitive.

However, in most cases HTML5 Apps delivered via the web will provide a more affordable and practical alternative to App development for cultural organisations with a good idea of the audience for their productions and services.

The first mobile web apps to emerge have been largely of the gaming variety.  However, it is likely that we will see the first HTML5 web apps developed by and for cultural organisations in 2012.

In the meantime, for those of you wanting to check out a mobile web App, you could take a look at Coolendar.com (best views on a mobile device).  If you want to create you’re own simple mobile web App for your venue using content from your own web feed or social media, WidgetBox can help – check out the web App Throckmorton Theatre created.  Or, if you want to experience the broader multi-media and geolocation capabilities of HTML5, you might want to try The Arcade Fire’s interactive video experiment for their song ‘The Wilderness Downtown’.

It will be important to monitor consumers’ uptake of web-ready HTML5 mobile Apps because, at the end of the day, it will be the consumer that drives the changes in the Apps landscape.

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