FireChat’s anonymous, off-grid messaging app arrives on Android

FireChat has been on a rollercoaster ride since developer Open Garden released it for iOS(s aapl) last month, peaking at well over 100,000 iTunes downloads a day last Tuesday. Open Garden is now hoping for a repeat performance, this time on Android.
On Thursday, Open Garden released FireChat on Google Play(s goog). FireChat has set itself apart from other messaging apps in several ways. Not only is it anonymous and ephemeral — conversation streams disappear as soon as the app is closed — it’s designed to create proximity-based hyperlocal networks. It uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth links to connect to nearby devices without using the internet as an intermediary.
FireChat Android iconThe result has been a messaging service that can be used completely “off grid”. Open Garden can’t even track local messaging traffic on FireChat since none of that traffic actually traverses its servers.
Since it launched on iOS, FireChat has seen a lot of uptake overseas, rising into the top 10 in iTunes’ social networking category in 80 countries. That led to a lot of demand for Android version. Today’s launch is meant to get FireChat capabilities immediately into the hands of millions of Android smartphone and tablet users. But there are still some pieces missing, the biggest piece being interoperability between Android and iOS devices.
Android FireChat users will only be able to communicate with other Android FireChat users in nearby mode. The same goes for iOS users – they’ll only be able to mesh up with other iPhones and iPads. FireChat also has a global mode that works over an internet connection and amounts to a massive chatroom of users from across the country. For now that will be the only forum where iOS and Android smartphones will be able to communicate through FireChat.
Open Garden hopes to bring cross-platform to support to FireChat quickly, said Christophe Daligault, Open Garden VP of sales and marketing. Right now the technical issue is that the iOS and Android versions use different incompatible technologies to make their peer-to-peer connections. The iPhone version relies on Apple’s new multipeer connectivity framework released in iOS 7, while the Android version uses multihop mesh networking technology originally devised by Open Garden as a broadband sharing tool.
FireChat on Android - ScreenShot
Daligault said Open Garden plans to bring the platforms together through a series of updates. In a forthcoming update, Open Garden will turn on Wi-Fi peer-to-peer links over wireless local area networks. That means an Android device and an iOS device will be able to communicate using a Wi-Fi access point as an intermediary, though neither device would need to connect to the internet. Getting iOS’s multipeer framework to link directly with Open Garden’s Android mesh will be more difficult. Daligault said Open Garden is researching the possibility now, and hopes to overcome the problem soon.
Due to Android’s greater fragmentation, FireChat won’t work on all devices, though given Open Garden’ past work optimizing its mesh networking apps for Android, it will have more support than most. Older phones, however, don’t have support for Wi-Fi Direct technologies, which can limit the type of connections phones can make. Daligault said that FireChat should work without a hitch on most devices less than two years old.