Open Garden, FireChat’s creator has a long history in building peer-to-peer mesh networking technologies to improve access to the Internet. Open Garden first iterations in mobile apps on Android were Open Garden Tether and Open Garden Mesh. Both of these apps reached millions of users and have been used to move tons of data on mobile devices and have been enabling access for free when carriers were charging for tethering.
Since the very beginning, app developers were asking Open Garden to build applications on the top of this new generation of network made of direct interconnections between mobile devices. The one application that was always coming back, in developers’ requests, was — messaging — over the mesh. Towards the end of 2013, iOS released their multi-peer connectivity framework. We clearly understood it was the time to show the potential of such networks with a simple messaging app. FireChat was born and released for the first time on March 20th 2014 as a demo app to show the potential of the technology. The promise was: “Messaging without Internet access”. We thought it could be used at concerts, festivals, Burning Man, in the plane, at the beach. Quickly the app that was supposed to remain a demonstrator became the driver for the adoption of the Open Garden network. 10 days after the launch we were #1 in 15 countries on the Appstore and in the top 10 in 115 countries in the Social Networking category. 3 weeks after the launched we had passed 1 million users.
FireChat is a way for people to build networks, independent from any infrastructure and powers:
When the students in Taiwan started to use FireChat for the Sunflower movement, we realized it could also be used for social movements, in situations when governments threaten to limit access to the Internet.
I explained what happened on a CNN interview in Honk Kong.
When you build technologies that support freedom of access it automatically leads to freedom of speech. Seeing FireChat becoming the #1 app in Taiwan shows the power of communication tools, the same way Facebook or Twitter were empowering people during the Arab spring.
In its current version, FireChat was built for a many-to-many messaging experience. All the conversations are public and people can choose to stay anonymous or to reveal their identity. The off-the-grid part is what makes it unique in a disruptive way. If you are not connected to the Internet, communications can keep on flowing between groups of users nearby. That’s why it was so successful in Taiwan, at Burning Man and in Hong Kong. Obviously the reliability of this alternative network is still subject to the reliability of the devices and their operating system. Apple and iOS devices are the most reliable. The fragmentation on Android devices makes it much more difficult as not only the radio chipsets are made by different providers but also the version of Android affects the performance. The good news is Android L has brought a lot of improvements. And it looks like Google is willing to drive more uniformity among device manufacturers. The proof is the Android One initiative in India.
FireChat’s success in Hong Kong can be explained by 3 factors
- Hong Kong has a very high-density population.
- Hong Kong has one of the highest penetration ratios of smartphones.
- Students and protesters feared that Internet access would be shut down like in Taiwan.
The reality is the government never shut down access to the Internet but there were so many people in the streets of Hong Kong that mobile networks were constantly congested: Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, WeChat didn’t work in the crowd.
Why people used FireChat in Hong Kong more than Twitter or any other messaging or social networking app
Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the protests asked students to install the app. This lead to 100,000 new account creations in Hong Kong during the first 24 hours on September 28th and more than 500,000 in less than a week. In the first 4 days of the event FireChat had more than 2 million chat sessions while Twitter reported 1.3 million tweets worldwide about the event in South China Morning post.
The app was used for 3 reasons:
- Spread out information on mobile to the largest number of users. That’s how protesters could organize themselves in an efficient way.
- Keep on communicating with other users nearby while they were in the crowd and to spread out information.
- As a symbol of freedom, showing that government would never limit their ability to communicate freely.
What happened is probably the largest adoption of a mobile app in history in such a small geographic area in a short period of time.
FireChat is demonstrating the power of peer-to-peer mesh as a tool against censorship and for freedom of speech. But behind these recent events there is something much more substantial that Open Garden team is expecting to realize. It is the promise of connecting the next 5 Billion in an efficient and very low cost way that is independent from expensive infrastructures. It doesn’t require billions of dollars of investment; it doesn’t require waiting years to see satellite, balloons or drone technologies attempting to improve access. It is available now, it is 100% software and it works on existing smartphones.