At present, Firechat is a public chat room. It came into prominence shortly after it launched, when protesters at the Umbrella Revolution student protests in Hong Kong used it to communicate, due to the threat of the Internet being shut down. Once Firechat has a critical mass of people at the same location, it goes “off the grid”, connecting one phone to another and creating a mesh network over which messages travel from one user to another. Apart from the famous protests, Firechat has found use at events and music festivals, where WiFi and cellular networks get jammed because of the sheer number of people there. I used it at the NH7 Weekender in Delhi, especially when calls, SMS’ and Whatsapp messages weren’t going through. It was also used at Burning Man.
What’s interesting is that, as of October 2014, Firechat had around half a million users in India, making this its second largest country, tied with Hong Kong.
Public chat rooms are messy and chatrooms that require many people to be online at the same time at the same place might have limited and transient usage. Still, the potential for an application that goes off the grid and allows you to remain connected to others is potentially a topic for a fascinating, freewheeling conversation on the future of the technology and how it will permeate, as well as the future of the application, which is still evolving. I had one such conversation with Firechat CMO Christophe Daligault, who likened being on the grid to ‘the visible part of the moon’, indicating that there’s an invisible side too:
MediaNama: Does Firechat use both Bluetooth or WiFi?
Christophe Daligault: The same WiFi radio that is used to connect your phone to the Internet is used to connect to other phones in a P2P way.
MediaNama: How does Firechat see itself? Is it a public chat room or a messaging app?
Christophe Daligault: The company is called OpenGarden and Firechat is one of our apps. It’s a technology platform company. We see Firechat as a messaging app. It is true that today it is a chat app…it creates this massive chat room. We have maybe 8-10 million chat rooms today. Two million different chat rooms were created during the protests in Hong Kong. We like to see it as the first app that is “off the grid”. We are working on private messaging, but that will take us some more time, because we need to make everything work off the grid. For example, your identity. If you’re Nikhil, your nick name has to be unique, whether you’re on the grid or off the grid.
MediaNama: What do you see as the primary use case? Do you see it as P2P messaging like WhatsApp or a Facebook Messenger, or do you see it as a mix of both – both public and private?
Christophe Daligault: Today it is more public, in the realm of Twitter. It’s a public chat room, and anybody can see. If you tweet, I can see your tweet. Eventually, we are building private messaging, but we will still retain the public aspect. We are starting from Open Chat, and then we’ll add the private messaging. The reason for that is simple: there are very established services like Facebook, WhatsApp and WeChat, so there is no real need for another service. It works off the grid, which is where we’re going, but because of the limit of the range, you need a maximum distance of 40-70 meters between Device A and Device B. If there is Device C and D and E, it forms a mesh and extends the network. We need a very high density of people to create the network. This is why we’re starting with open chat, and a high density of people, such as the festival – the Bacardi NH7 Weekender.
MediaNama: And the Hong Kong protests. At the NH7 Weekender, it didn’t really go off grid. Is there a minimum number of people required for going off grid, for the mesh network to come into play?
Christophe Daligault: It’s a factor of the density. We need another device at 40-70 meters. The app works in the background as well. You don’t have to be watching the app.
MediaNama: What do users want? What are they asking for?
Christophe Daligault: They are asking for private messaging and private groups. We’ll get there, but it will take a few more months. What surprises is the way people use it. The student protest…we didn’t expect it at all. Just 10 days after we launched, there was this massive student protest. And that’s the first time we saw huge usage.
What we see is what we call the “visible part of the moon”. The app can be used online and offline. You go online, and I can see your message from San Francisco. You go off the grid, and are on the mesh, only the people who are physically around you on the mesh can see it. It’s difficult for us to know what people are using it for, because there is a whole segment of the user population that we don’t see at all. We see people use it on air planes. What happened in Burning Man is 4,000 people signed up for the chat room, and on the first day, they couldn’t get to the festival because it had rained and the roads were muddy. The police said that people need to turn around, because there are 1,000 cars stuck in the mud, and people were asked to turn around. Everybody started to help one another find hotel rooms, plan parties. We some of this in Pune at the NH7 Weekender, where people going to the festival were helping each other find rides.
Some people now want to be able to send files. We’re going to open up to photos pretty soon. We’re introducing verified accounts.
MediaNama: Why do you have verified accounts? Isn’t anonymity a critical part of this app?
Christophe Daligault: Yes. Here’s why: if we don’t ask people to take a unique user name, there will be 10 Nikhil’s.
MediaNama: I had a situation where a user at NH7 Weekender asked me to change my name on the app because we are both ‘Nikhil’…
Christophe Daligault: At the Hong Kong protests, there was misinformation in the chat rooms, with people saying “You need to run away, the army is coming, they’re using real bullets’, and that was not true. So we brought journalists on Firechat because they wanted to use real names, and were able to clarify. It’s a little bit like Twitter. The big difference with Twitter is that Firechat is more interactive. Twitter is more like a blogging tool: it is not designed for a conversation with a group of 5,000-10,000 people. Firechat is more like this chat app. If you have people in your chat room, they’ll respond right away.
MediaNama: How does discovery happen with 2 million chat rooms? How do you surface rooms to users, and deal with the problem of inactive chat rooms?
Christophe Daligault: That’s right: that’s one of the things we need to fix. We just launched a new update where we enable you to follow other users. When you’re active on Firechat, I’ll get a push notification. At that point, if I click on the notification, it will beam the chat room you’re in, so I can join the same chat room. Number two, we’ll bring search. Today, it’s a bit challenging to know which are the interesting chat rooms.
MediaNama: Do you see the transient use of Firechat as a challenge? That it will become a festival-only or a protest-only app?
Christophe Daligault: These cases look like edge use cases. If you look at the macro level, there are so many devices coming to the market, 3-5 billion data friendly devices over the next 3-4 years. The traditional architecture used for mobile Internet is not going to scale. In the US there is paucity of spectrum and the cost of Infrastructure is enormous. So if you and I are in the same building, and we want to message one another, it’s that my phone will fire up the 3G radio, sends the message in the air to a cell tower, to a servers, all the way back down, burning battery on the phone. If that message could hop on peer to peer to devices nearby which doesn’t consume as much. In the long run, it seems to us that especially in all the high density urban areas, we’ll get a lot of traction. India, Hong Kong, US, Brazil, Mexico, China, where we have enormous population in high density.
The other thing we look at is cost. A lot of people can afford to buy devices for $100, and they need it for business, but don’t want to spend $5-10 for data, because they need it for calling. It will become a convenient and free means of communicating in high density areas. The technology is going to improve, and the range is going to increase pretty quickly, but where we see now, and you’re right, these are edge use cases. Pockets, or islands. Eventually, those islands will start connecting. But we don’t compete with existing infrastructure, we complement it, especially in area where connectivity is challenging and expensive. Market forces will push for it. Some of those highly visible use cases, we weren’t expecting the Hong Kong use. How long will it take? I don’t know, maybe 2 years or 3 years. As the technology evolves, it will be very pervasive way of enabling mobile communications.
MediaNama: How did the Hong Kong government react to Firechat? Was Firechat blocked?
Christophe Daligault: We haven’t really heard from them, but my guess is that they didn’t really like it. Firechat was blocked in China, but not in Hong Kong.
MediaNama: Do you see that as a challenge going forward, as governments get worried about people going off the grid?
Christophe Daligault: I think it’s inevitable. It’s like everything like those peer to peer disruptions that have happened, like in Music, because they were scary for some people, like a Pandora’s box. If enough people get this app, and they shut down the cellular networks, and they can still communicate. It’s technology like short wave radio, and another communication tool.
MediaNama: How much time do you have before other apps like WhatsApp and Facebook also allow people to go off the grid?
Christophe Daligault: Probably a year and a half or two. This is pretty hard to do. A lot of people have tried to do this, and we’ve worked on it for a few years before we launched Firechat.
MediaNama: How do you see Open Garden then? Do you see it as a technology provider with Firechat as a showcase app, or would you be focusing on building the app as a new messaging platform?
Christophe Daligault: We see ourselves as a network. Which means that Firechat is the showcase of the technology, which showcases it for consumers and media, but also for other developers. Since we launched Firechat, we’ve had requests from 2,600 companies for the technology, via API. What we intend to do is provide this technology to other companies, but primarily in the space of Mobile gaming. The more people that have this technology on their devices, the more pervasive the network is, the better the service is for everybody. Our challenge is to get the technology on hundreds of millions, if not billions of devices, as quickly as possible. We are going to do that by partnering with those in Mobile gaming, because gaming is often ahead of the curve, and as far as the communications space is concerned, we want to see what we can do with Firechat.
MediaNama: I’m assuming that that is one mode of monetization. What are the other ways of monetization that you’re looking at?
Christophe Daligault: We’re still in the phase of fast growth. There are other things – messaging apps have stickers – but frankly, monetization is not a priority right now. Priority is to grow as fast as possible, and establish the network for devices to connect and people to communicate.
MediaNama: One of the things I was worried about, around the protests, is how do you maintain anonymity and security? The app isn’t encrypted, right?
Christophe Daligault: Today, Firechat is like Twitter. The messages are like tweets, and those messages are not encrypted. The encryption makes sense in case of private messaging. That’ll take a few more months. We passed half a million users in India at the end of October. India is our number 2 country. It is a huge market for us.
MediaNama: How many users are active and how many transient?
Christophe Daligault: That changed a lot after Hong Kong, with retention of over two months. We keep on adding, and will see what happens. It’s a question of… the magic happens when you get on the app and there are enough people. Our challenge is to get people to come to the app, and for enough activity.