FireChat is using an old idea in a new way, making communication easy even if you dont have an internet connection.
The app, which was released for iOS two weeks ago and for Android just last week, allows users to connect to a local network in order to talk. This mesh networking doesnt require WiFi, so its ideal for use in remote areas, disaster situations, or for those who cant afford to pay for internet service.
While FireChat currently only allows users to talk within a given distancecurrently, the outer limit of the network is under 100 feetapp creater Open Garden hopes to extend that range later this year.
Wireless mesh networking
The idea behind FireChat is simple: rather than channeling communication through a WiFi router or the internet, devices connect directly to one another, using their built-in Bluetooth or WiFi capabilities.
In essence, this local mesh network gets rid of the middle man. Though youd still need the internet in order to access content or communicate with users who are far away, you can use your mobile devices built in connectivity to latch on to other devices nearby, circumventing the necessity of a strong WiFi signal or cellular connection.
Wireless mesh networking isnt new, though Open Garden is certainly popularizing its use. If youve ever streamed content directly from your phone to your TV or connected to another computer wirelessly at school or work, youve probably used this technology without even thinking about it.
One of the biggest benefits to FireChat, in some users eyes, is its ability to keep conversations private.
By using off-the-grid networks that dont go through a common router, users can shield their conversations from any potentially prying eyes. In light of concern over NSA data collection and spying, in particular, many see this as a serious plus for mesh networking. Additionally, like SnapChat, all conversations evaporate after being sent, with nothing saved.
On the other hand, when you sign into FireChat, you cant choose exactly whos in your network. There are only two choices: Everyone mode, which connects you to all other app users (and requires a WiFi connection), or Nearby mode, which limits your access to those who are within close proximity by using mesh networking.
Regardless of the mode, you can stay anonymous but cant limit your posts to only certain people; all users have access to all conversations.
Another promising benefit to FireChat is its potential use during or after an emergency.
Often, in the wake of a natural disaster or security crisis, WiFi networks are overwhelmed by the number of people trying to get in touch. If a server crashesor if a cell phone tower or power line is damagedit can be difficult or impossible to reach friends and family or communicate vital information. Open Garden hopes FireChat will be a viable alternative to WiFi communication, if necessary.
Low cost, easy access
Finally, FireChat may be a good means of conversing for people who cant or choose not to pay for cellular or internet service.
Other apps, such as WhatsApp, have already given users a means of circumventing phone bills by using the internet to text or talk.
FireChat takes that a step further, allowing people to skip not just the phone bill but potentially the internet bill, too. While the program needs significantly more development in order to allow users to talk to friends or family who are at a distance, the possibility is there: if enough people join, Open Garden envisions a mesh network that extends across cities or even states.