FireChat is an anonymous messaging app in a crowded field, but the off-the-grid technology behind the service sets it apart. That proprietary tech is also what kept Android and iOS users from being able to message each other, but that's about to change with FireChat 3.0.
The app works without cellular or wireless connectivity in different ways on the two major smartphone operating systems. On iOS, FireChat leverages a little-known feature called the Multipeer Connectivity Framework, which allows iOS devices to communicate without an Internet connection. FireChat developer Open Garden uses its own mesh networking technology to power the off-the-grid connections on Android. Making the two apps compatible so that users without connectivity could still chat was a technical challenge that Open Garden solved with a mix of Bluetooth and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi.
FireChat has two basic modes, Nearby and Global, that let you chat with people in your town or users overseas. Last month the company rolled out an update that lets you create your own chat rooms. Chief marketing officer Christophe Daligault said more than 50,000 different rooms have been created since then. In the latest version of FireChat, you can create chat rooms and invite people using other social networks. Nothing about FireChat is private, though, so anyone near you can drop in on your room.
Not surprisingly, FireChat has seen high rates of adoption in countries where Internet connectivity is spotty or has been shut off--most recently in Iraq and Iran.
"In Taiwan, there was a major student protest movement, and we saw [usage spikes] happen again in Iran after access to WhatsApp was blocked," Daligault said. "People are finding new ways to communicate with one another even if the Internet is shut down."
The app is still fairly small, with about 5 million downloads to date, but growing. Open Garden is calling the latest release Firechat <3 (for love, of course). Cheesy? Yes. But enabling iOS and Android users to talk without Internet is a development that many will cheer.