Picturing an iPhone at an Exhibition

Recently, I attended the “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay” exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Unless you plan on visiting Paris after these artworks are returned, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some truly fabulous paintings, including Van Gogh’s Starry Night. If you live in the Bay Area, don’t miss it.

But this column is not about my museum recommendations. Rather, it’s about iPhones.

As at many museums, the De Young offers an audio tour of its exhibits. You rent an audio-only playback device and headset. For the Post-Impressionist guided tour, it costs $7.

But wait? Wouldn’t it be great if the Museum offered an Exhibit Tour iPhone app? It could be a win-win. The museum would save the cost of purchasing and maintaining hundreds of audio playback devices and headsets. Attendees (at least those with iPhones) would be saved the hassle of having to carry around an additional piece of equipment. As a bonus, an iPhone app could be far superior to the audio-only guides that now exist. It could include supplementary graphics and video in addition to the audio. It would have an easier-to-navigate touchscreen interface.

Depending upon the museum’s policies, the app could serve as a permanent souvenir of your visit — or it could be set to expire after your visit is over.

For all this to work smoothly, two critical details would need to be worked out:

1. How would you get the app on your iPhone?

The simplest way would be for the Museum to submit the app to the App Store and, assuming it gets accepted, have it available for you to download. As one especially relevant example, you can already get a Tour app for the Orsay Museum.

But what if you arrive at the museum without the app pre-purchased? Assuming the Museum has decent 3G coverage (for iPhones and iPad 3Gs) or free Wi-Fi (for all iOS devices), you could download it on the spot.

Still, I believe the best solution would be if the Museum could directly and locally transfer the app to your iOS device. In theory, this could work by connecting your iPhone to a Mac server containing the app. Or it could be done wirelessly via a local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection (perhaps similar to how Bump works, if the app is not too large).

2. How would you pay for the app?

If the app is available via the App Store, there’s no problem. You pay for it as you would with any other app.

If the app is directly transferred locally at the Museum, you could pay for it via cash or credit card, just as you would have done to rent the separate audio device.

As many of you have probably realized by now, there’s one big problem with the entire local transfer and payment scenario: It’s impossible to do. Why? Because Apple won’t permit it.

The only way to install apps on your iPhone is via the App Store. There is no sanctioned pathway for the museum to directly transfer an app locally. [OK. Technically, this is not entirely true. As one example, there are ways for developers to permit users to load beta versions of an app for testing. However, such methods are cumbersome and not designed for the type of large-scale quick transactions that museums would need.]

Which is all too bad. This is a huge missed opportunity. It’s yet another example of how Apple’s restrictive policies prevent using iOS devices in ways that would enhance its functionality.

Apple could create a special section of the iOS for locally-transferred apps. It could include a check to make sure that you are not illegally copying apps obtained from the App Store or otherwise copy-protected. And Apple would have to give up its 30% cut of the sale of such “local apps.” In return, amateur developers could use this to create apps to share among friends. Various institutions, from retail stores to museums, could use it to provide apps at the point-of-sale. But it will only happen if Apple loosens its grip on iOS access. I expect it will happen someday. But it won’t be this year. Or next.

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