FireChat, the messaging service from Disrupt Battlefield finalist Open Garden that allows you to chat with people around you even when there is no regular Internet connection, is getting a major update today. This new version of FireChat introduces private group chats on top of its existing private one-on-one chats and public chatrooms.
These private groups can include up to 50 people and work like regular messages in FireChat. You simply select who you want to add to a group and start texting — just like in any other group chat app.
The FireChat team tells me that it’s seeing good growth in communities around the world. “In the US, people use it during large events, such as the Electric Forest music festival in Michigan and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia,” a company spokesperson told me. “In India, students and communities use it to create their own free and resilient communications network. In the Philippines, media organizations (Inquirer, ABS-CBN, GMA News) use it to broadcast news, weather and traffic alerts to people whom they could not reach otherwise.”
In the Philippines, the team also recently started collaborating with its first government agency, the Metro Manila Development Authority, which used the service to send alerts during a major earthquake preparedness exercise.
While this new feature may seem straightforward, it actually turned out to be a major technical challenge, the company’s CTO Ben Teitelbaum told me.
“With meshed private group messaging, we’ve built on FireChat‘s mobile ad-hoc routing capabilities to support group messaging that works when some, or even all, group members are disconnected from the Internet,” he said. “One of the biggest challenge was with key distribution. With a conventional messenger like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, a client can always get group information from the server. With FireChat 8, peers get group keys, invitations, messages, and group membership information directly from other other peers.”
Earlier this year, by the way, Open Garden/FireChat co-founder Micha Benoliel moved into a new role as chairman after having been at the helm of the company as its CEO since it was founded in 2012. Paul Hainsworth, the company’s VP of product management, stepped into the CEO role. He previously worked at the likes of Sprint, BlackBerry and Virgin Mobile, which gives him the kind of telecom experience Open Garden needs as it tries to make OEM deals to get its products pre-installed on handsets.