FireChat for iPhone lets you chat off-the-grid, without cellular or Wi-Fi signal

FireChat 1.3 for iOS (iPhone screenshot 001)

FireChat, a new instant messaging application for the iPhone, is kinda of a big deal. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between it and other messaging apps on the App Store if it weren’t for its particularly unique feature.

FireChat supports off-the-grid communication, a codeword for the ability to exchange instant messages without a cellular or Wi-Fi connection.

What kind of dark magic is this?

FireChat, the brainchild of the crowdsourced firm Open Garden and available free in the App Store, uses the same principles as AirDrop, Apple’s feature that takes advantage of a new iOS 7 technology called Multipeer Connectivity Framework (MCF).

Read on for the full reveal…

When you pull up from the bottom of the screen and enable AirDrop in Control Center, iOS lets you send an image, URL or other piece of content to another AirDrop user directly, no Internet connectivity or iCloud access required whatsoever.

AirDrop requires both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. First, nearby devices are detected via Bluetooth and then data transfers get negotiated and carried out by establishing a direct connection between the two devices’ Wi-Fi antennas, making possible short-range content transfers.

The beauty of AirDrop is that devices participating in data exchange don’t need to be connected to the same Wi-Fi network or be connected to a Wi-Fi network at all.

That’s exactly what FireChat does for you.

FireChat 1.3 for iOS (iPhone screenshot 002)

The app uses the iOS 7 Multipeer Connectivity Framework technology to create an ad-hoc peer-to-peer network between devices in close proximity. Each device becomes a node and messages can be relayed from one node to another anonymously and securely, making possible even long distance messaging without a network signal

Upon creating a screen name, the app presents you with two chat modes: ‘Everyone’, for communicating with any user that can be reached through nodes, and ‘Nearby’ which limits your messaging only to folks within Bluetooth and Wi-Fi range of up to around thirty feet (nine meters) who are also using the app.

And because the Nearby feature doesn’t use an Internet connection – and given you can also send messages anonymously – hackers will have a hard time to eavesdrop on your communication. As for ‘Everyone,’ a maximum distance the app will work within depends on the connected nodes, or devices.

FireChat 1.3 for iOS (iPhone screenshot 004)FireChat 1.3 for iOS (iPhone screenshot 003)

Why would you want to limit your communication to people in your close proximity?

Granted, FireChat is no replacement for Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and other popular messaging apps. Its key appeal lies in the fact that users can easily create ad hoc communities anywhere, without the need for a network signal.

This is quite handy in situations when there’s no cellular/Wi-Fi connectivity – like when on a plane, at the beach or camping – or when networks are congested, which typically happens at crowded venues like concerts, festivals and so forth.

Some of the highlights include:

  • Instantly message anyone around you on iPhone, iPad or iPod touch
  • Chat and share photos with one person or with a group
  • See what people are talking about everywhere, or create conversations that only people near you can join
  • Works even without any Internet connection or any type of mobile coverage
  • “Nearby chat” works best within 30 feet of your location
  • Easy: no Facebook or email login, no password to remember
  • Use it at home or when traveling anywhere in the world
  • No significant impact on battery consumption

From Apple’s description of the Multipeer Connectivity Framework in iOS 7:

The Multipeer Connectivity framework supports the discovery of nearby devices and the direct communication with those devices without requiring Internet connectivity.

The Multipeer Connectivity framework provides support for discovering services provided by nearby iOS devices using infrastructure Wi-Fi networks, peer-to-peer Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth personal area networks and subsequently communicating with those services by sending message-based data, streaming data, and resources (such as files).

 This framework makes it possible to create multipeer sessions easily and to support reliable in-order data transmission and real-time data transmission. With this framework, your app can communicate with nearby devices and seamlessly exchange data.

Apple with iOS 7 has the first major mainstream implementation of wireless mesh networking. This under-appreciated feature could become indispensable in the context of wearable devices, methinks.

To learn more about FireChat, please visit the Open Garden website.

You can download FireChat free in the App Store.

The app requires iOS 7.0 or later.

What do you think of FireChat?