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Don't blink! FireChat takes ephemeral messaging to whole new level

Built with the sole purpose of allowing mobile messaging without cell service or Internet, FireChat has grown into a rabbit hole somewhere between SnapChat and Chatroulette.

James Martin/CNET

Jump into iOS messaging app FireChat and you can only expect the unexpected. A "Lost" reference, chat room anachronisms, fired-off insults and spam and Internet acronyms. And that's the just first 15 seconds.

In FireChat, you'll never see the same thing twice, nor the same group of 79 other strangers from around your country talking in real time, seemingly about everything and anything that pops into their heads. Nothing is stored. Everything is exchanged peer-to-peer and instantaneously deleted upon closing the app.

It's not the purpose of the chat client, but the weird and wild "Everyone" chat room -- which is the default exchange front upon opening the app -- has blossomed into the cultural crux of FireChat, eclipsing in some ways its groundbreaking tech and marking it as an app where anything goes.

While experts marvel at the mesh networking at play -- the app can be used without a connection -- actual users of FireChat are diving into the chaos to witness that network come alive. That "community," if you can call it that, is growing at 1.14 users a second with more than 100,000 downloads a day.

In FireChat, blink once and the conversation moves on without you. Say something -- say anything -- and it has a high chance of disappearing into a hungry void where only the mighty screenshot can prove it was ever said at all.

From mesh network to messaging fusion

Developed and launched for free in early March by Open Garden, a software company that specializes in providing Internet access through mesh networking, FireChat was created with the purpose of showcasing Apple's overlooked Multipeer Connectivity Framework. The protocol is the backbone of the file-sharing AirDrop feature. Open Garden utilized it to easily allow iPhone users to message each other without a data connection, or even cell service.

"We were trying to convince people to use this technology, app developers and people who make phones and phone operators," said Christophe Daligault, an early Open Garden investor who decided, in his words, to roll up his sleeves and join the company last September. He now serves as its sales and marketing chief.

That tech -- mesh networking -- has been around for decades and mostly dormant in consumer applications, though the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has dabbled with it for the military.

Simply put, it's the process of using peer-to-peer Wi-Fi, traditional Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth to chain together nearby devices, creating a system by which they can connect through a universal session, regardless of each user's independent connectivity type. For instance, it's the way Bluetooth speakers and some smart home devices talk to each other, but you'd be hard-pressed to surface another example on the spot.

Open Garden wants to change that. Mesh networking is the specialty of the 10-person startup, founded in 2012, and it provides an application programming interface (API) and software development kit (SDK) for Android developers alongside numerous Android applications for connectivity workarounds and free and easy tethering. FireChat was the company's iOS answer, leveraging Apple's platform as a proof-of-concept.

In more than a dozen countries since launch, FireChat has shot to the top of the charts in less than a day. Open Garden

"Works really well 30 feet within you," Daligault said of FireChat's "Nearby" feature that relies exclusively on mesh networking. Up to 100 feet, it should work, though there are no guarantees. Despite those limits, the feature was intended to be the crux of FireChat, and has thus far stolen the show when it comes to talking about the app's potential usefulness.

But since its debut in March, FireChat seen growth that would make a SnapChat-obsessed venture capitalist's head explode. Beyond the 100,000-per-day download figure, the app is tearing up the charts uniformly.

"I've launched 14 apps on iOS and I've never seen anything like this," Daligault said. It isn't faring as well here in the US, but has shot to the top three in numerous countries since launch, from Germany, Belgium, and Israel to China, Australia, and Taiwan.

In the process, the app's default "Everyone" chat room -- where you're put into a random group of 80 users from around your country -- has grown into a perplexing phenomenon, an intersection between the chat rooms of old with the thunderous speed and modern Web nature of 4chan and social networks.

Just a small taste of what one can expect to wander into when opening FireChat at any given moment. Screenshots by Nick Statt/CNET

Because the app grew so fast, Open Garden had to set a cap on the "Everyone" rooms, limiting them to a user's home country. That proved to be a half-measure, not stemming the flow of the conversation enough for users to actively engage one another. So Open Garden instituted an automatic cap, letting each group of randomly organized users hit 80 and closing it off. That yielded a perfect balance: A space small enough to interact with others, but still thrown together randomly in a way that changes every time you open and close the app.

"To be honest, we were expecting some of it," Daligault said of the overt strangeness one encounters in the "Everyone" rooms, "but not this much." The experience has been described to Daligault and Open Garden employees as "the child of Twitter and the Jerry Springer Show," among other apt mash-ups.

It's easiest to understand it as a combination of chat apps and the kinds of experiences their respective user bases most often generate. In this case, it's somewhere between the random, stranger-oriented Chatroulette -- the video chatting phenomenon that exploded in 2010 -- and the ephemeral SnapChat, but with an anonymous twist.

It's also hyperlocal if you can find people nearby to chat with, but the "Everything" room requires an Internet connection in one way or another. Open Garden has done its best to categorize its creation, providing an interesting look at which core components of the messaging app ecosystem make up our preferred services.

Open Garden created this graph to size up FireChat's core messaging formula with its chat app brethren. Open Garden

The experience of passively using FireChat is a bit like a comedic dystopian glimpse of future attention spans and vapid communication. Think mainlining the Internet in text form, a sensation so overwhelmingly stupid and useless that you're forced to sign out after a two minutes, having been bombarded with everything you never wanted to read from strangers both close by and far away.

But type in something yourself and it changes the experience. Ask a question and watch answers pop up, from strangers thousands of miles away whom you will never meet or know his or her real identity. Keep engaging, firing off replies, and keeping up with the speed of the flow -- sending your line of sight bouncing back and forth like a freshly cue-cracked pool ball -- and you begin to feel a bit of an adrenaline rush.

"This is the Internet!" one might proclaim. More specifically, this is a network, no Internet required. It's twenty-first century communication at in its most iconic -- and most ephemeral -- form. Nothing you say here matters, so say whatever you want, the logic goes.

Not everyone may agree, just yet. "People's reaction seem to be very polarized. If you look up on Twitter, you'll see people who say, 'This is so fun. I'm addicted to it,'" said Daligault. "You see a very broad range. Probably half of the other people roll their eyes and drop it."

It's true that the more you use FireChat's "Everyone" feature, the less useful it seems. Like Chatroulette and most niche messaging platforms, it's likely to fizzle out unless the public repurposes it, the way Chatroulette was kept afloat by celebrity sightings and musician performances. Whether that happens is uncertain, and FireChat may only surge back in relevancy when its mesh networking aspect proves effective in instances of connectivity shortages and communication blocks, like in natural disasters or authoritarian social media crackdowns.

Luckily, FireChat isn't trying to make us communicate in new ways. Rather, it's trying to shift the existing ways of how we communicate -- the fundamental technology in use -- and make more efficient tools more mainstream.

"Nobody manages this centrally. You literally can't shut it down," Daligault noted.

The future of FireChat

The proliferation of weirdness on FireChat doesn't seem to be diminishing its potential influence in the widespread implementation of mesh networking protocols in mobile app ecosystems.

The app is still getting write-ups online with buzzwords like game-changer and revolutionary, something that "could change the way we connect" that's capable, in specialized cases, of "uniting Taiwan and China in free speech." Open Garden is also getting contacted by scores of developers, all interested in incorporating the power of mesh networking.

While its App Store reviews are not too pretty -- the word "potential" is used in even the most glowing of five-star reports -- an Android version of FireChat is on the way in the next few weeks. It will leverage different technology -- like Open Garden's very own SDK and APIs -- as Google's mobile operating system does not natively enable mesh networking like iOS.

Open Garden also has some new features in the pipeline. It will enable photo sharing for the "Everyone" chat rooms soon -- it's already available in "Nearby" mode -- a decision the company understands cannot be taken lightly given the free-for-all circumstance.

But one-on-one messaging? Probably not. Daligault said the app is meant for group chats, and might see a private chat function soon, but will never attempt to replace successes like WhatsApp or WeChat. The purpose of FireChat will remain the same: prove that mesh networking is both valuable and viable.

"We were really wondering what the best way to bring this to market and overcome this," Daligault said. "I think the proof has been made."

In that respect, FireChat is sure to be a success, no matter how deep its rabbit hole descends.