FireChat is one of the most interesting new communications products to arrive in the past year. Mostly because it’s not another take on standard messaging. By which I mean it’s not another WhatsApp clone.
FireChat is a hyperlocal chat tool that allows smartphones to connect to each other directly, without the need for WiFi hotspots or cellular networks. As long as two devices (or a bunch of devices in a small space) can connect to one another, using Bluetooth or their WiFi radios, they’ll be able to chat. (Typically, every communication your smartphone gets from another smartphone comes through an intermediary device or service. Not so with FireChat.)
The app functions as a local chatroom. You choose a username — no password required — and you can talk to anyone who is nearby.
The app came out for iPhones in late March, and today there’s an Android version available. You should try it. It’s really new.
But does it matter? Outside of limited cases, like text chatting in a subway where there’s no network coverage, is FireChat important?
I think it is, for two reasons, although both have major caveats.
The unjammable network?
The first is the capability of FireChat to operate when networks are not available or are actively being blocked. Twitter banned by your country’s government? Cellular network towers knocked down by a hurricane? Get on FireChat and you can still communicate.
Now, at the moment, devices running FireChat can communicate only with other devices they can connect to directly using their Bluetooth or WiFi radios, and that range is severely limited. FireChat can talk to devices in an area that’s pretty much room-sized, no bigger. However, the company that makes FireChat also makes mesh networking technology, in which devices communicating with one another can also pass along data for other devices, bucket-brigade style. Chat messages can hop from one device through other devices before reaching their destination. This could, theoretically, make a system like FireChat work in much larger spaces than the tiny local circles it’s now limited to.