New messaging app FireChat allows users to communicate without using data or Wi-Fi. Instead the system relies on a little-known feature of iOS, Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Multipeer Connectivity framework, a network that connects users through signals broadcast from their devices.
Apple devices broadcast this signal about thirty feet, but for every iPhone, iPad or Mac that joins the network, the signal is strengthened by the signals from the other device and expands the field. When a lot of people are in one area, say at a sporting event, mall, college campus, or even an apartment building, the signal would have a much further range than the original thirty feet offered by a single device. The technology was a new addition for iOS 7, but Apple also uses it for AirDrop, which allows nearby Mac computers to share files.
FireChat, an app developed by tech start-up The Open Garden, takes advantage of this technology. Before the launch of FireChat, The Open Garden’s apps were exclusively for Android phones. It is currently the company’s only app for iOS.
How it works is simple. Users download the app for free from the App Store on their Apple device. They can then enter chat rooms of eighty people to talk anonymously in a set-up that is vaguely reminiscent of the days before MySpace and Facebook took over the social side of the Internet. The catch is that these people have to be nearby to be able to chat without data. Only if the user enables some form of data can the app reach someone outside the radius of the wireless network.
It is a popular download in the App Store, currently ranked in the top 200 of all free apps and in the top thirty of free social networking apps on the American app charts. In countries, such as Germany and Taiwan, the app is enjoying even more popularity. Since its launch in March, more the app has reached the point where it’s being downloaded 100,000 times a day worldwide.
Media reports are praising FireChat for its data- and internet-free chat service. Wired called the technology “a big deal,” and pointed out its potential for areas were Internet use is restricted or unavailable. Fortune called it “sneakily subversive and quite possibly the most important thing to happen to the Internet since international network hubs began to form in 1995.”
The app is growing in popularity in these early weeks since its launch. Since that initial launch, three updates have been released to increase stability, photo support, and memory usage. Whether this internet-free confidential chat will spur more apps or not is unclear. For now all that is known about the future of the app is that Android users will get their own version of FireChat in the near future.