AUSTIN – We've all been there before: You're at a convention, concert, or sporting event, and no matter how much you want to share your thoughts, you can't because the network is clogged. FireChat, a new app that made its debut at SXSW 2015, solves this problem by bypassing the Internet entirely. While the service favors traditional Internet usage, it will also work just fine by networking devices via Bluetooth.
I met with the FireChat staff at SXSW 2015, and what they had to say was very interesting. On its surface, FireChat is a bit like Twitter and a bit like an SMS service. You can post in big chatrooms with others (each hashtag, such as #SXSW, creates a room to go along with it), or correspond with your friends one-on-one.
The app's big selling point is its Bluetooth functionality. While Twitter relies on an Internet connection and texting relies on a cell network, FireChat is not beholden to either one. If the Internet is available, FireChat will connect that way. If not, it will reach out to all other Bluetooth devices within about 200 feet and create an ad-hoc network, allowing users in proximity to communicate with one another.
Conversations from the ad-hoc Bluetooth network will persist even once Internet access is restored. The applications here are manifold, but the FireChat developers drew special attention to political protests. Even if the Internet is clogged (or the government shuts down access), citizens can create huge networks to talk amongst themselves, and continue the conversation after the rally.
FireChat is free and available now on iOS and Android. The company said that it has enough venture capital to run for the next two years or so, but when it eventually monetizes, it may look to license its Bluetooth connectivity to mobile game developers, or developers who want to help users get online via Bluetooth for other applications.
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