Open Garden’s FireChat: Mesh Solution Finds a Problem

It seemed only yesterday –actually two years ago–that I shared a coffee with Open Garden’s dynamic co-founder Micha Benoliel. He had come close to getting a big fat check at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2013 but did succeed in intriguing everyone with Open Garden’s mesh worldview. So it was a pleasant surprise to see Open Garden getting some major coverage in connection with the democracy protests in Hong Kong.

To refresh memories:Open Garden has a mobile app–Android for now–that knits together an ad hoc network from whatever devices happen to be in hailing distance of a Bluetooth or WiFi signal and, of course, also has the software loaded. So if one or more devices in this instant community has a data connection to the Internet, every member would gain access to the Web.

It’s a clever idea, but in practice it meant you’d more likely be using OG to piggyback off your friend’s data plan rather than connecting with a random stranger. For Open Garden to work as promised, you’d need a high density of OG-ers in your vicinity.

And then earlier this year Open Garden introduced Firechat: their take on a group texting application–available on IOS and Android– where one could chat “off the grid”. In other words, Open Garden just looked at the ad hoc network as a self-sufficient community of content generators that didn’t necessarily need an umbilical cord to the Internet. Messages from members could hop around the network, automatically routed to the right devices. Another good idea, but it still required a critical mass of other OGers.

Finally, FireChat found a problem that it was uniquely suited to solve:Hong Kong democracy protesters in needed to communicate with each other without having to rely on spotty cellular connections or worry about government surveillance. In other words, lots of people in close proximity who wanted to be off the grid. Sounds like a situation tailor-made for FireChat.

After one of the protester’s leader recommended FireChat, it was downloaded about 500,000 times and was used to provide real-time reporting of events to protestors. Open Garden has been kept very busy with their subscribers.

But this starup’s execs were careful to point out that Firechat does not provide complete privacy. Once in the network, anyone can see the timeline of posts–the same as in Twitter.

Perhaps this privacy issue will lead to yet another idea!