With mid-term elections in our own country less than a week away, the recent protests in Hong Kong over proposed changes to Hong Kong’s political system are a jarring reminder of the paramount importance of freedom of speech in any democratic process, abroad or at home.
And while recent events may have brought both parties back to the bargaining table, it wasn’t the renewed friction between the members of the “umbrella revolution” and police that ultimately doused the government’s efforts to contain the demonstrators…
It was a smartphone app.
A hybrid of the popular messaging apps Snapchat and Whisper, what distinguishes FireChat from its “chatty” competitors isn’t how it conceals your activity on the Internet; it’s that FireChat does away with the Internet completely.
Built by the San Francisco-based company Open Garden, FireChat’s pioneering use of “mesh networking” — the ability to chain together devices, in this case with a Bluetooth connection — allows users to communicate directly without having to rely on a Wi-Fi connection.
At first blush, this distinction may seem trivial. The reality, however, is that it just might be a game-changer.
Protestors in Hong Kong wield umbrellas to protect themselves from police tear gas. Photo by Flickr user Alex Leung and used here via Creative Commons license.
I recently sat down with Micha Benolieli, co-founder and CEO of Open Garden, to learn more about FireChat; “peer to peer” networking; and how the Great “Firewall” of China was temporarily toppled by nothing more than a few thousand students armed with a handful of handsets.
Welcome, Micha. Thanks for taking time to offer some insight not only into the FireChat phenomenon, but the opportunity to get a glimpse into your own unique vision for the Internet.
Micha Benolieli: My pleasure, Tom.
Before we begin, I have to ask, “Open Garden” is a clever play on the walled garden, siloed communications of the early Internet era. I’m sure the name isn’t a coincidence. What’s the story?
Benolieli: Great place to start. I chose the name of Open Garden, the company behind FireChat, because I wanted people to be able to be connected everywhere as if they were at home. The name also conveys the mission of the company, which has always been to advocate three core value sets: 1) Net neutrality; 2) freedom of speech; and 3) access to knowledge.
So tell us about FireChat, this new app we’ve been hearing so much about lately.
Benolieli: Open Garden has been developing the technology of peer-to-peer mesh networking for the last three years, and FireChat was originally launched this past March to demonstrate the potential of this technology. But we quickly realized it was going to be more than a simple demo app when, 10 days after the launch, we were No. 1 in 15 countries and in the top 10 in 115 countries among social networking apps.
Where in the world is FireChat? At the heart of the current Hong Kong protests, that’s where.
The adoption numbers are impressive, and I definitely want to talk about how you and your team achieved them. But first, I want to talk about the technology. Can you explain the concept of “mesh networking,” which is at the heart of FireChat’s functionality?
Benolieli: Sure. So your smartphone has a radio to connect you to a cell tower or Wi-Fi network. It also has the ability to connect you to other phones directly. FireChat is a messaging app that enables people to communicate with one another even if they’re not connected to Wi-Fi. Think about it this way. When you’re connected to the Internet, you can create large discussion groups and broadcast that information to a large number of people. With FireChat, you can keep on broadcasting content and receiving messages, even when you’re not connected. The technology that makes this possible is called “peer-to-peer mesh networking.” FireChat uses this technology to create a “daisy chain of smartphones” so that your messages can flow from one phone to another. No Wi-Fi required.
Hong Kong protesters communicate with innovative messaging app, FireChat. No Internet required.
Is there a physical limitation as to how far those messages can be sent?
Benolieli: The range is about 250 feet.
And these messages being sent between phones using the FireChat app — public or private?
Benolieli: In FireChat all conversations are public. It’s like the AOL chat rooms of the 1990s. You chat with people you don’t necessarily know, but with FireChat you do it on your mobile. People join topics that they like, or they create their own and invite people to join. It enables you to reach a very large number of users fast. You can go on FireChat, ask a question and instantly get an answer from users on the network. It is very efficient and addictive.
You mentioned, FireChat is a top 10 social networking app in over 115 countries. But the app was only released eight months ago. How do you account for such rapid adoption?
Benolieli: In a word: disruption. People want to be able to be connected all the time and, if possible, they want to do it for free. Today, when you use Whatsapp or WeChat from your mobile it is using your data plan. FireChat connects the next billion users of smartphones who won’t be able to pay for a data plan, or simply won’t be able to access the Internet because of the lack of mobile infrastructure in emerging markets, by bringing the cost of connectivity to zero.
Said another way, FireChat has the potential to empower the next generation of smartphone users?
Benolieli: Exactly. We’ve been looking at the issue of an increasingly decentralized Internet for a while now, and we’ve come to the conclusion that we are on the verge of what I call the “smartphone infrastructure age.”
Of course, time will tell, but if recent events are any indication FireChat may not have just ignited the recent uprising in Hong Kong, it very well may have blazed a trail for an entirely new type of Internet.
Benolieli: The notion of connectivity itself is evolving. Before it meant to be connected to the Internet. Now it means to be connected to other people and devices around you. With FireChat we are paving the way within the field of communications so that you are connected and able to communicate even when there is no Internet.
Or when the Internet is turned off. I understand the app was downloaded over 40,000 times in June of 2014 amid government-imposed Internet blackouts in Iran and Iraq. And, of course, there’s Hong Kong.
Benolieli: Mesh networking has been around for decades, but we are the only company that has made this technology available to millions of users and usable through a simple app. As a result of what happened with FireChat in Iran and Iraq, and now is happening in Hong Kong, we have deployed the largest dynamic mesh network in a single geography with the most density in the world.
The adoption of FireChat by the participants in Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” is impressive to be sure. What are the latest numbers?
Benolieli: To date, we are at about 510,000 downloads, resulting in over 13 million chat sessions in 1.6 million different chat rooms since September 26.
Well, I can see why. Linking people together by device rather than a dedicated network makes it impossible for governments to shut down the service — an obvious advantage for those trying to organize without falling under the watchful eye, and ear, of Big Brother.
Benolieli: From the outset, the vision was to create a network of smart devices with a simple application that turned each of these devices into Internet nodes. A few years ago, we bet everyone was going to have a smartphone in their pocket and that someone would come along and build a network using these devices and simple “routers.”
Which is exactly what you’ve done. FireChat harnesses a feature in Apple’s mobile software, iOS 7, called Multipeer Connectivity Framework. It’s a feature found on all Apple devices. So why has no one else tapped into it earlier?
Benolieli: This protocol is great and enables multiple players in the Apple ecosystem to discover other Apple devices in proximity. As far as the communication between these devices is concerned, however, we use our own technology to build on that framework to enable peer-to-peer communications between Apple and Android devices.
So how did you develop this competitive advantage?
Benolieli: First, we’re the world’s largest publicly available peer-to-peer mesh network. Second, our knowledge and networking technology have been developed specifically to work in a mobile-dynamic environment. Over the last three years, we’ve tested this technology on tens of thousands of different smart devices and smartphones; whereas all other mesh networking technologies were developed to be used on fix hardware infrastructures. And finally, we have the best team in the world to build this technology. LEDBAT, the previous networking protocol developed by my co-founders, is now part of the Internet standard and is used by BitTorrent as well as Apple.
But with new technological advancements come myriad other issues. In recent months, the most prevalent has been privacy. Now that FireChat is being used by people in situations where privacy is a major concern, how have you addressed that issue?
Benolieli: User feedback is important. Many users are asking for new features, and we listen to their requests. The product is only in its infancy and is evolving fast. To accommodate this rapid evolution, we are pushing updates every week or two. And to your point on privacy, the most recent update enables users to claim a verified username. This feature was recently made available, and already many reporters, journalists and artists are claiming their verified usernames. Requests for username identification can be sent to: [email protected].
Another issue that always comes up as it relates to the app market is monetization. Right now FireChat is free. So how will you make money with FireChat moving forward?
Benolieli: We are not looking to make money with FireChat. Instead, we want to monetize the network that is created with the Open Garden technology. And the way we do that is like any other network provider, and that’s by working with business partners who are making money when their users or devices are connected to the Internet through the Open Garden network.
So how do you plan to monetize the Open Garden platform?
Benolieli: One way is to create more user time. Let’s say for example you’re a game developer and your user makes an in-app purchase on your game through the Open Garden network. We take a cut of the transaction. In fact, we’ve already started to partner with device manufacturers in the field of the Internet of Things “IoT.” Our first partnership was announced a month ago with a company called Phone Halo, who is marketing a product called “Thetrackr” on our network. Similarly, we will continue to sell access to our network to IoT manufacturers to provide connectivity to their devices.
So if money isn’t your key metric, then how will you measure success?
Benolieli: Adoption. We want to be the first social network to reach 2 billion users.
That’s billion with a ‘B’?
Benolieli: That’s right.
And what’s your biggest risk?
What makes you think you will be successful?
Benolieli: We have a great team, a great product and great technology. We also know how to engineer luck.
Speaking of luck, most tech CEOs consider a call from Google inquiring to use their technology as the equivalent of winning the lottery. If you haven’t gotten that call already, how will you respond when you do?
Benolieli: Any technology that Google can bring to Android will help us improve our software and increase our adoption. We wish to partner for the benefit of both companies.
Micha, it’s been a pleasure. But before I let you go, I’m sure some of our readers will what to continue the conversation offline. What’s the best way to get in touch with you?
What do you think? Is FireChat about to spark an Internet revolution, or is peer-to-peer networking just another technological anomaly destined to flame out?
Disclosure: I have both a special interest, and some personal involvement, developing technology used to empower free speech in distressed regions. Stroome, the collaborative online video platform I founded in 2009, was used by Egyptian protestors to get eyewitness video accounts out of the country when Facebook and Twitter were shut down.
As co-founder of an award-winning internet startup (Stroome), a former development executive (DreamWorks, VH1, HBO), independent producer (Blaze Television), and advertising/marketing executive (Adworks), Tom Grasty currently resides at the junction where media and technology collide as the principal at The Grasty Group, a consulting firm specializing in early-stage startups in the content creation space. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGrasty