New iPhone chat works without internet


FireChat connects via Bluetooth to devices within a 30-meter radius that could be expanded with a network of mesh devices

Mobile app stores are full of applications for sending messages, from WhatsApp to Tango and its numerous imitators. But FireChat, released for the iPhone last week, stands out. It is the only one that can be used without coverage.

FireChat takes advantage of a feature introduced by Apple in the latest version of its mobile software, iOS7, called multipair connection. This feature allows phones to connect to each other directly using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi as an alternative to the internet. If you’re using FireChat, its «proximity» chat room allows you to exchange messages with other users in 30 meters without having to send the data through your mobile provider.

The executive director and co-founder of the Open Garden start-up, FireChat creator Micha Benoliel, says this application proves that smartphones can be freed from mobile networks. It hopes to be able to launch many more applications in which the use of the Internet is optional thanks to the upcoming release of software tools that will allow developers to build FireChat-style applications for iPhone, Android, Mac and Windows devices. «This approach is very interesting for multiplayer games and all kinds of communication applications,»says Benoliel.

The developer of the consulting firm Thoughtbot, Anthony DiPasquale, says FireChat is the only application he knows that has been built to make use of the multipair connection, perhaps because this feature is little known among Apple developers. «I hope more people start using it soon,»she says. «It’s a fantastic frame with a lot of potential. There is probably a lot of usefulness for multipair connection in all situations where there are groups of people on a nearby radio wanting to share some kind of information. DiPasquale has run its own tests with the multipair connection, creating an experimental application that sends streaming music from a device to nearby devices.

Today, this new iOS7 feature only works for data that is passed directly from one device to another or from one device to several more. However, the soon-to-exit Open Garden software will expand the feature so that data can be passed from one iPhone to another that is not within the same range, through intermediate devices. This approach, known as mesh networking, is an integral part of a number of existing projects to build disaster-proof or community-controlled communication networks (see «Create your own mobile Internet with mesh networks»).

Applications built to take advantage of these communication possibilities between devices may offer benefits in terms of security and privacy compared to those that depend on the Internet. For example, messages sent using FireChat to nearby devices do not pass through a system operated by either OpenGarden or a wireless operator (although they are broadcast to all nearby FireChat users).

This means that the content of a message and its metadata could not be collected in a central communication node by an attacker or a government agency. «This method of communication is immune to firewalls like those installed in China and North Korea,»explains software engineer Mattt Thompson, who writes the iPOS and Mac development blog, NSHipster. Recent revelations about the massive monitoring of online services and the constant appearance of information about data leaks make this a good time for applications that do not rely on central servers, he says. «Now that users are more aware of the security and privacy implications of the technologies on which they depend, moving to a local and tailored network makes a lot of sense.

However, peer-to-peer and mesh network applications carry their own risk, since local traffic can be accessed simply by using a device within range.

The main Open Garden product is an application that allows Android devices to share their Internet connections (see «Can I have a little bit of access to the Internet?»). However, Benoliel explains that he won’t be coming to the iPhone soon because the feature FireChat depends on can’t be used to share the data connection.

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