Open Garden’s FireChat may be the most popular mobile social networking app that you’ve never heard of. That is, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of it unless you’re a political protester in Hong Kong or Iraq, or you recently attended the Burning Man art and entertainment festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
In those places, participants used FireChat, an ad hoc wireless mesh network that allows smartphones to communicate with each other, without the need for a cell provider or the Internet.
For protesters in Hong Kong and Iraq, the attraction is obvious. Being able to communicate throughout an area without the authorities interfering is a real plus. In Iraq, where the government has already shut down much of the Internet, and in Hong Kong, where the cell networks are overloaded, FireChat is a necessity.
In the Black Rock Desert, which is practically bereft of cell connections, FireChat and its ability to form ad hoc mesh networks was the only form of communication available for most Burning Man attendees.
But by now you’re asking yourself how this matters to you. After all, you’re not in Hong Kong or Iraq, and you don’t travel to the Nevada desert for business, so why should you care?
It turns out that Open Garden, the developer of FireChat, actually had something much different in mind when it created the app. Think about being able to communicate with your colleagues during conferences.
For Open Garden, FireChat was the next step in communications for mobile devices, an area where the company has already introduced some important apps, this time a wireless mobile mesh network that doesn’t rely on cell carriers or the Internet.
FireChat works by allowing iOS and Android smartphone users to set up peer-to-peer networks between devices that allow messaging using the built-in WiFi and Bluetooth radios in each device. Wireless devices can communicate with others that are within about 200 feet, and messages are propagated through the entire network. Devices can also communicate via the Internet if it’s available.
“The way mobile networks evolved doesn’t make sense,” Open Garden CMO Christophe Daligault told eWEEK. He pointed out that if two people are near each other, it makes no sense to call the cellular network, and send their information through the network and across several servers before it reaches the other person. “Why consume all those resources if the message can go straight to you?” he wondered.
So assuming you’re not challenging the police on the streets of Hong Kong or you’re not trying to find a way to get gypsum dust out of your nose in the desert, how would you use this app? Think about those times when you’re sitting around a conference table or in an auditorium and you want to brainstorm about the presentation. Or perhaps you’re attending a trade show with friends and you want to find each other.
FireChat Mesh Networking App Isn’t Just for Hong Kong Protesters
In a way, FireChat is a little like those chats that once existed between PalmPilot users when they’d message each other using their infrared beaming ability. The big difference is that with FireChat you’re part of a mesh network, which means that each device can send and receive messages to every other device as long as there’s some path between them. But what’s important is that the path doesn’t need to include the Internet.
For example, when I signed up for FireChat, I found a group discussion among iPhone users in the U.K. At least one of those users had an Internet connection so that I could join, even if the other users didn’t have such a connection.
That ability to support communications with and without the Internet is one thing that sets FireChat apart. But it seems to be part of a theme with apps from Open Garden in general, where the company has created a collection of apps that enable communications using mesh and WiFi for a variety of purposes.
Will FireChat work for your company? To some extent, that depends on your needs and your imagination. I can imagine using it for collaboration on anything from construction sites to oil platforms where there simply is no Internet. Or perhaps you could use it in places where the Internet is available but overloaded, such as during major conferences and trade shows. But it doesn’t only need to be about work.
An event that takes the cell network out of the mix, including natural disasters where it seems that the cellular networks are the first thing to go out, is another obvious use. In fact, there are any number of public service uses where FireChat might be critical, including such things as disaster recovery and a search for a missing person in a rural area.
Perhaps most intriguing, however, is Open Garden’s foray into the Internet of things (IoT). The company will be releasing a new IoT software development kit that promises to do for Internet devices what it’s doing for cell phones, which is to provide a mesh network that allows them to communicate without going to the Internet for everything. Instead, “We’ve created a new decentralized mobile Internet,” Daligault said.
What’s really important about FireChat is that its designers looked at cell phones in another way, not as telephones, but as wireless networking devices that could communicate with each other. Give those devices a way to communicate outside of a centralized network and suddenly there’s a new world of communications. It’s still too soon to know exactly how that new world will sort itself out, but FireChat has opened the door to something really new.