A technology loved by global protestors will soon be used for sending messages and music without the internet


Barcelona, Spain

An app called FireChat shot to global attention in September 2014, as protestors in Hong Kong’s “umbrella movement” downloaded it 100,000 times in 24 hours. The app lets users send messages to one another without cellular data or a wifi internet connection, relying on bluetooth and wifi radios in phones to form a “mesh network” of users.

Since then FireChat has been embraced by activists in mass protests in Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan, and elsewhere. The team behind it, San Francisco-based Open Garden, is now taking the technology and packaging it so that other app developers can easily bake its features into their own software.

The idea is to bring FireChat’s mesh network features to any app with a software development kit called MeshKit, announced two days ago at Mobile World Congress here. Developers who use the MeshKit SDK pay Open Garden based on performance, though Open Garden said it didn’t have standardized rates in place yet.

Users in emerging economies are particularly interested in a way to get more stuff on their phones without having to pay for data, or tolerate slow downloads. “In India … in the Philippines, people have very limited access to networks, they are on pre-paid,” says Marina Azcarate, who runs marketing for Open Garden. “People only know this limited, metered, form of connectivity, so they are very cautious about what they use their data for.”

The first app to use MeshKit is a hugely popular Brazilian music-sharing app called Palco Mp3, which claims 28 million monthly active users and 111 million downloads. Palco’s users are artists who upload their music to the platform, which then displays ads in the app. The revenue is split with the musicians.

When MeshKit is enabled sometime this spring, Palco users will automatically share music with one another if they’re close enough. Users can select what types of music they want to receive from others—whether it’s baile funk or pop, for instance. MeshKit can transfer 300 megabytes of music in under a minute. “They can use this technology to get fresh music, peer-to-peer, without using their mobile data,” says Azcarate.

There’s another clever use for MeshKit’s data-sharing abilities. Because users in emerging markets often have to deal with slow internet connections, downloading a new app is a pain. As a result, app developers struggle to get their wares to these markets. Azcarate says Palco MP3’s maker, Studio Sol, plans to use MeshKit to advertise, and distribute, other apps among its userbase in the form of a “sponsored download.” This lets developers bypass app stores, and gets apps into the hands of users with minimal fuss. “The technology provides for the offline free distribution of apps themselves,” says Azcarate.

As for FireChat, which brought Open Garden notoriety, Azcarate says it was planned as a proof of concept that unexpectedly caught fire with the public. The real goal all along, she says, was to create a way for other app-makers to build mesh networks themselves. “It was a sign of the need for this kind of network—we can’t be dependant all the time on centralized cell networks,” she says. “All the ways of communicating are going through a telco, so there must be other ways to do it.”

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