The mobile world is here to stay, I think we all agree with that. The next big thing for museums then is developing applications for smartphones. Whether to charge or not to charge for these seems to be the question ... or is it??
There has been some discussion about charging specifically for museum applications on the #mtogo stream on Twitter. Responses have ranged from (and I’m paraphrasing here): “I will not be using your app if you charge”, “we already pay taxes for content so it should be free” to “it could be considered that you need to cover your expenses” and “it is a revenue raiser”. One comment said it depends: “you'd charge for a book but not a pamphlet, and for some talks. just depends on what the quality and intent is”.
As at 5 January 2011 (when I last searched the iTunes Store) there were around 259 iPhone apps that were categorised as “museum education”. Of these around one-third seem to be actually produced by museums, although it was difficult to tell as lots of city guides and commercial art apps seemed to be tagged this way too. Anyway, of these several are paid (some examples include the iMusuem Musee du Louvre $3.00; Gauguin Exhibition at the Tate $3.99; Houdini at the Jewish Museum NY Acoustiguide Smarttour $3.99; $5.99 for the Mucha Museum). Current apps from the Smithsonian, Cal Academy and AMNH are free. However, just today the British Library released a much-trumpeted app for around $4 for iPhone and $6 for iPad.
From chatting to folks here and on Twitter, it seems to me that, rather than a blanket statement saying they must always be charged or free, there are a number of charging models that could be considered, each with its own set of positives and negatives.
Model 1: Free app
Model 2: Free app for (say) two-three months then charge
(Note @jvsankar suggested “maybe cost can be tied to a real visit to a museum that then provides a time limited code for free access, benefit both worlds”)
Model 3: Free app, then charge for version 2 (i.e. offer as a 'light' version first)
Model 4: Charged app
Another model seems to be "freemium", as stated in this Smartphone owners paid less for apps in 2010 article: “More applications on Apple's App Store switched to a freemium model, which lets users download applications for free and then makes money by selling premium services through the application. About 34 percent of all revenue generated by App store applications came from in-app purchases on free applications. Half of the revenue generated from the App store came from paid application sales.”
And while we’re at it here’s a link to the video Mobile Year in Review with some stats that will amaze you, as well as some online resources thanks to the folks on #mtogo (especially the lovely @nancyproctor and prolific @musebrarian and yours truly):
In summary then, it seems that the answer to this question is "it depends". Or, indeed the question may not be whether to charge or not, but how much and when - which charging model best suits that particular circumstance?
One final thought: perhaps museums could market charged apps as users paying for convenience (i.e. pushing content to their mobile device) rather than paying for the content itself which may also be free on the website or the physical site anyway?
So, just my two cents worth and I'd be keen to hear your thoughts, as well as any alternate charging models.