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How FireChat is using an obscure iOS feature to change messaging

There is no shortage of messaging apps in the iOS App Store right now, and each service has its own gimmick. Some use stickers to entice you, others offer disappearing messages. There are free phone calls, a range of emoji, voice recordings on top of photos, and the list goes on. FireChat is a new entry in the messaging market with its own distinguishing feature: the ability to chat without Wi-Fi or a cell connection.

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FireChat's global chat room isn't exactly thrilling yet, but it has potential.

San Francisco-based startup Open Garden has been working on ways to let devices communicate without Internet access, but its first messaging app relies on an iOS 7 feature that hasn’t gotten much attention: the Multipeer Connectivity Framework. The feature supports connections between iOS devices using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and maintains that connection even when your phone can’t access the Internet.

FireChat has already gathered steam overseas since debuting in the App Store two weeks ago. Over-the-top messaging apps like WhatsApp have grown an international following because they don’t require cell reception to send and receive texts, but FireChat doesn’t require any kind of Internet access to work. The implications for messaging are huge.

How it works

FireChat relies on the Multipeer Connectivity Framework to enable anonymous group chatting between iOS devices in the same vicinity. The framework creates a chain of devices that don’t necessarily need to be connected to the Internet. If one device is connected, the connection is shared via the peer-to-peer framework.

Open Garden has until now been focused on mesh networking for Android phones, releasing an eponymous app in 2012 that helps devices find the best possible Internet connection and then share connectivity with other Android users. So far, FireChat relies on the iOS framework to make free messaging possible, but Open Garden CEO Micha Benoliel said FireChat will soon take advantage of mesh networking technology.

Even though FireChat is part of the anonymous social app trend, Benoliel has no illusions that FireChat will take on WhatsApp or Snapchat—they’re just fundamentally different ways of communicating. FireChat isn’t designed to help you keep in touch with friends and family, or even talk to other users one-on-one. The app has Nearby and Global chatrooms where you can anonymously chat with others, making FireChat more useful for music festivals, airplane rides, camping trips, or other events where you’d want to discover people nearby.

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FireChat provided this chart that shows the app's popularity in Europe.

The potential vs. the reality

The potential uses for FireChat are incredible, particularly in cases like natural disasters or emergencies where cell reception is struggling and public Wi-Fi networks are overloaded. The app would let people to reach out, find loved ones, and get information without having to track down an Internet connection. Imagine being stuck on a crowded subway and being able to tell people you’re OK.

But the app has a few setbacks to overcome. FireChat has racked up mostly positive ratings on iTunes, but a common complaint is that the anonymous Global chatroom is overrun with racists and foul-mouthed slimeballs who gravitate toward nameless, faceless networks. Benoliel said he’s aware of the problem and has a few fixes in mind to clean up the app, including user moderators and swapping out swear words for symbols.

“It depends on the time of day when you arrive [in the chatroom],” Benoliel said. “People are making jokes, talking about the news. When they’re not swearing, it’s really interesting.”

Open Garden has grander ideas for mesh networking, but the team thought free messaging was the most easily understood use case. The approach appears to be working: FireChat is gathering steam, at one point racking up 100,000 installs a day, and the app hit No. 1 on iTunes in more than 10 countries and was in the top 10 in 57 countries. More features are in the works, but Benoliel said Open Garden is first trying to figure out how people want to use the app before they add one-on-one messaging or make any other major changes.

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