Is FireChat the Future of the Internet?
As you already know, Hong Hong has been rocked in recent weeks by protests against their Beijing overlords. Promised free and fair elections, Beijing has reneged on this promise and is now telling Hong Kongians (that's what they're called, aren't they?) that they will only be able to vote on Beijing-selected candidates.
All that is interesting from a political perspective, but from a technological perspective, the more intriguing story is how the protesters are communicating. Faced with their masters shutting down their cell towers to keep them from communicating, they installed a little known mobile app called FireChat.
FireChat enables the user to chat with other FireChat users via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth within a 200 foot radius. This might seem limiting, but it is also capable of creating what is known as a peer-to-peer mesh network. With a P2P mesh, each FireChat client will be able to reach users at almost an infinite distance.
In other words, I can chat with anyone without cell tower access as long as another FireChat client is within 200 feet and then another FireChat client is within 200 feet of them, and so on. In densely populated urban environments, this could potentially include millions of people.
One of the beauties of this technological age is its dynamism and decentralization. During the Arab spring, protesters were cut off from each other and their social networking was compromised by their government overlords. They responded by using Tor and other tools that make tracking and tracing them and their communication much more difficult by the powers that be.
FireChat has similar potential to keep communication free and flowing when the powers that be attempt to cut communication among the masses to protect their power.
Aside from the potential political ramifications, the concept and power of P2P mesh networking is intriguing. Imagine a day (not too far off) when everyone has a cell phone and has enabled an app like FireChat to provide a P2P mesh network. In that case, cell towers and other centralized access points will become unnecessary. Potentially, ISPs and other types of servers might be unnecessary, or optional, as each cell phone is in essence a client and a router.