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.
FireChat on Android.
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.
The truly local network
The second reason is the strong social dynamics of highly localized chat circles. Imagine you walk into a classroom, or a lecture, or a sporting event. With this service you can easily and quietly communicate with just the people in the room.
The iPhone version.
The issue with the way FireChat does this right now is its user identity system: There isn’t one. Anyone can log into a FireChat location-based room, pick her own nickname, and go to town. This might be good for political rooms, and possibly for trash-talking fans of the opposing team in a sporting event, but it has limits. If you don’t know who’s who and who might be listening, the free-for-all chat can also limit free expression.
A future version of the app that has groups, or circles that you can join, could limit who could be in a room. That would be good. Imagine if you could sit down in a big lecture hall and immediately see which of your friends or coworkers were also there, and start chatting with just them.
Get in on the ground floor
Another issue that FireChat is still working on fixing: People on the iPhone and the Android apps can’t talk to each other. They use different technologies. Again, the company is working on fixing this.
(FireChat also has a global chatroom, which uses standard data networks. It’s a mosh pit, and you can ignore it.)
While firing up FireChat right now is a little lonely, since it’s a growing network and not a lot of people are likely to be on it where you’re sitting, this app is both technically and socially innovative, and that makes it worth trying.