Why is everyone talking about FireChat?

So a new app allows you to chat without an internet connection. So what? Here's why 40,000 Iraqis downloaded it over one weekend.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 24 Jun 2014

FireChat is a new(ish) app that allows its users to chat without an internet connection. Handy, eh? On the underground, or in the middle of, say, a moor, you can pop a message home reminding your significant other to buy pasta. Simples.

It’s the app that has everyone talking– for two reasons. Firstly, because of the way it passes on messages: instead of sending them through one big central server, FireChat takes advantage of the fact that smartphones ‘talk’ when they’re close to each other, and forms a ‘mesh’-like grid of phones, allowing messages to be sent through them, rather than through one central network. Mesh networks are the future, say pundits. And this is one of the first major apps to take advantage of them.

The second reason is more political: users in countries where censorship is A Thing have gone berserk for it. According to its San Francisco-based developer, OpenGarden, during one weekend this month more than 40,000 people in Iraq downloaded it. Clearly, there’s a use for it there.

There are limitations: firstly, it only works over a distance of 70m – so if you’re the only one nearby with a FireChat-enabled phone, you won’t be able to chat to anyone. And although the plan is that eventually, if a person at the edge of the network has an internet connection, everyone will be able to take advantage of that, at the moment, it only works using Bluetooth and wifi.

OpenGarden is unwilling to explain to anyone how it has managed to bridge the communications gap between Android phones, which uses its own mesh network, and Apple, which uses something else. But the whole thing has been done with little more than $2m in seed funding. You can’t deny it’s worth talking about.

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