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How do you preserve mobile apps?

I don’t profess to have an answer to this  question entirely or definitively. I’m partly throwing this question out there to see if others have considered this or have had to provide a solution.

I was asked this exact question last week by a former colleague whose archive is about to accept an app produced as part of a research project. In the short time I had to provide an answer my response was purely based on my own opinion as I was, at the time, unable to locate any professional research or best practice on the subject. It was only during the first day of the DPTP Practice of Digital Preservation course that my advice was sound as Steph Taylor, ULCC, had encountered a similar problem.

I suggested that the app be treated as though it was a video game. Not only should the app itself be preserved, in whatever format that is (either .apk for android or .ipa for iOS apps), but also the underlying source code, the language it was written in and version, and if relevant any standards the app complies with. I suppose you could take this a little further and take snapshots of the app as image files or even a video of it in action.

Equally important to preserve is the context and this, as suggested by Alain Depocas, should take the form of a documentary strategy. Any peripheral documents created during the development of the app, such as instructions on how it should be used, schematics, plans, specifications, or other relevant information that may help developers of the future understand the purpose, structure and composition of the app are important to capture and preserve.

I was also asked about providing access to an app. ‘How do we do this?’ The Open Preservation Foundation wrote an excellent blog post on this very subject and suggested installing the app on a virtual machine, thereby enabling access to the app via an ordinary PC with no requirement to have an android or iOS device. It sounded fairly straightforward and certainly overcame the issue of going down the proprietary route but I confess I haven’t tried it myself. If anyone has or if anyone has any further guidance or experience of archiving and accessing apps I’d be welcome to hear it…please get in touch!

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