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How Mobile Technology is Accelerating Online Art Growth

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Smartphones and tablets are fueling the online art explosion. Still from UGallery.

As seen in the debut of Amazon Art and the recent launch of Google's bold Open Gallery initiative, 2013 was the year that online art went mainstream. The industry now features over 300 art e-commerce platforms, with 71 percent of all art collectors having purchased a piece online at some point.

We're witnessing the digitization of art commerce -- with 2013 being a banner year.

There are many reasons for the online art boom. For one, original artwork is more popular than ever, and an increasing number of online art platforms are providing great options for affordable, original pieces. Beyond that, e-commerce, with its flexibility and convenience, is the preferred method of buying today. Art is merely evolving to meet the shift.

Mobile is the Go-To Purchase Platform Today

Another reason for the online art explosion is the rise of mobile. Its impact has only just begun to be felt in the category.

According to eMarketer, mobile commerce is set to make huge gains in shopping, with sales across mobile devices reaching $100 billion by 2017. M-commerce, which enables buyers to browse and buy anytime, anywhere, will likely become the gold standard, especially as mobile devices like tablets continue to erode the traditional PC market.

Just as online art went mainstream with the general shift towards e-commerce, browsing art through smartphones and tablets will likely see substantial acceleration over the next 5 years, creating a massive sales opportunity for the industry while making the buying and selling process easier than ever.

Artsy, a well-known online art platform, has capitalized on the pace of mobile adoption by launching an iPhone app that has over 50,000 high-resolution images from more than 600 museums, galleries, art fairs, and estates, including the British Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and Gagosian Gallery.

Mobile users tend to be good customers, too. My company, UGallery, has seen our mobile traffic and mobile transactions both grow 100 percent in the past year. Tablets, it turns out, are close to ideal for art browsing and shopping.

Browsing & Buying on Larger Mobile Screens

The changes have come in the past five years or less. Prior to 2007, potential art collectors couldn't comfortably experience visual art on mobile devices. Early smartphone development emphasized small handsets and smaller screens to maximize battery life, and tablets weren't yet mainstream. As a result, browsing and shopping on a mobile device made little sense.

Imagine previewing art on a BlackBerry screen under 2.5 inches in size. It would be difficult to see the intricacies of the piece, much less have the confidence to make a purchase. This limited mobile's sales power, making online art the express domain of PCs and laptops.

Luckily, screen size has changed in the post-Android/iPhone world. This year, shipments of 5-inch-and-larger mobile handsets were estimated at 60.4 million units, up 136 percent from 2012. The majority of phone owners now want larger devices. Meanwhile, tablets are well on their way to overtaking PCs in market share.

As bigger and better screens have become the new norm, experiencing art online has moved beyond PCs and laptops, offering an anytime-anywhere browse-and-buy platform for collectors that simply didn't exist just a few years ago. Now, consuming art digitally is more accessible, flexible, and convenient.

Mobile is Becoming Core to the Experience

Growing into a legitimate medium for browsing and buying art online was only the first step. The mobile experience is actually well-suited for the art collector or browser in many ways.

One advantage is its vertical form factor. Desktop screens are horizontal, which is great for text, because we read from left to right. But for an image-based product, the vertical scrolling of mobile works particularly well. There's no need to have wide screens for art, so mobile browsing often results in a more efficient use of screen real estate and a better user experience.

Another benefit of mobile shopping is that it enables on-the-go education and instant research. Museums and cultural institutions know this and are building apps to help guide clients through their visits. I toured the Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia and was directed through each room using their app. It enhanced the experience and allowed me to share the visit with friends afterwards.

These are important advantages, because, for art buyers, the prelude to purchase often involves a deliberation period, sharing the artwork with friends, family and/or designers, before the collector ultimately says yes. Mobile shortens that traditionally longer purchase process for both sellers and collectors and makes it easier and more enjoyable.

A Clearer Picture Moving Forward

As we head into 2014, I'm excited about the prospects for mobile within the online art category. Though there is still much work to be done for the space to truly maximize possibilities through the platform, the picture is very bright.