We’ve laid foundation to creation of completely new internet - FireChat developer

The world around us is shifting and the underworld of information is shifting alongside it. New demands, created by the political, social, and economical changes are answered rapidly in the world of technology. A new FireChat application allows users to connect and speak via their devices - when there’s no network around. It’s gained great popularity at times of protest, when crowds needed to have connection despite authorities’ attempts to cut it down. Will this software lay the foundation for something new? What social changes could it bring? We ask these questions to the man behind FireChat, CEO of Open Garden Micha Benoliel, on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: The man behind the innovative new messenger, FireChat, CEO of Open Garden, Micha Benoliel, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. So, Fire Chat allows people to send message even if they don’t have internet, cell phone coverage – sounds quite revolutionary, how exactly does that work?

Micha Benoliel: Hi, Sophie, thank you for having me today. So, basically when you have FireChat installed on your smartphone, if your smartphone cannot connect to a cell tower or cannot connect to the Wi-Fi hotspots, it will use the wireless radios in the phone, the Bluetooth or Wifi to connect directly to the smartphones around and that way your messages can be spread out through daisy chain of smartphones, which is created through the technology we developed for 3 years in Open Garden, called peer-to-peer mesh networking.

SS: But I’m thinking, it only works between people who are nearby, right, or in a crowd. I would still need an internet connection to send a message to somebody across the town, right?

MB: The way it works is that when people have the application installed and they are in proximity, they are almost like building their own internet, and the distance between two smartphones can be up to 150 feet. The great thing is that your messages can also bounce from one phone to another and if person in the group has access to the internet that some messages can get eventually broadcasted back to the internet and that person can also retrieve messages from Internet that can be later distributed locally through the peer-to-peer networks. So, indeed, it is mainly made to have group conversations in a specific proximity, and that’s also the way the big chatroom works on FireChat, so when you create a chatroom on FireChat, the people who are going to join that chat room are all being able to talk within a certain vicinity. So these chat rooms are with specific functionality that if the mobile networks are congested, like it has been the case on Sunday, for example, because there were so many people that gathered in the event in Hong-Kong, users of FireChat who were there, were still able to send messages and receive messages with the people who were around, and it is very useful in this kind of situations because you can inform people, you can remain informed and that way you still have communication tool.

SS: Except from predicament such as Hong-Kong, because you just brought it up, what’s the point in chatting with someone who is close by anyway – isn’t it just easier to talk? I mean, situations where you can’t send text messages, it’s really rare…

MB: There are many situation where you need this kind of technology. I’m just going to give you a few examples. You can be in the plane and you’ll be willing to chat with people around you in the plane, you can be going camping with your friends, you can be in the subway, where very often in many cities you don’t have any internet access when you are in subway, or you can be, very simply, at a conference, a large event, a concert, at the Ballpark in the U.S., for example, or at Burning Man like we did this summer in the U.S., in the desert of Nevada, where people basically go for partying for a week, and some users started to go there with FireChat in order to keep on communicating with people around, so it’s very useful; in addition to that, this application is unique, but it’s really the beginning, the infancy of this application. Now it’s pretty rough in terms of user experience, but we work on improving that user experience every day, and at some point, we will have new features that will make this peer-to-peer mesh networking technology more and more efficient. We also believe that messaging is only a beginning and this technology paves the way to the new internet.

SS: But I really want to talk more deeply about the new possibilities that you’re gonna have with the FireChat, but I’m just trying to understand what is it about right now, in the form that we have it right now, because what I understand, one of the ideas also behind FireChat is also about privacy? It’s staying anonymous, right?

MB: The application was released at the end of March this year, and since the very beginning, even when it was a demo-app when we launched it, because we wanted to show the potential of the technology, we had huge adoption all around the globe for this application. It’s really promising, we see that people are wanting this technology. Ultimately, what does it mean? It means that at some point you will be able to message people without even paying for your data or your cellular data plan, because these messages can bounce from one phone to another until they reach the frame to the Internet,which can be Wi-Fi access, for example. It’s very disruptive technology, the implementation we have in FireChat is really the early beginning…

SS: Misha, hold on, hold one, before we get to what you’re going to do with the application, please, it’s very important, talk to me about the privacy policy – isn’t it one of the ideas behind FireChat? Does FireChat have a privacy policy? Can you get banned for abuse? Is it a monitored thing?

MB: Everyone is anonymous on FireChat, everyone creates an account and is not obliged to reveal its identity. It’s a very anonymous process, when you sign in and when start chatting with other people. That way privacy, your privacy is not exposed at all. In addition, obviously, the application is evolving, and there are many possibilities that these technologies opened. I was in India - just to tell you exactly, what happened here in Hong Kong - I was in India for a business trip – why I’m telling you that is because that if you take the case of India, for example, mobile data is very expensive for the people there. Mobile data is also not everywhere, because the infrastructure that has been deployed is not strong enough, and investments are still weak in terms of mobile infrastructure in India – but everyone can buy a smartphone there, I mean, almost, if you look at the price of the smartphone – they are all going down very-very rapidly. Google released in India, the Android One, which costs $100 and it’s already a great smartphone, and you also have all these smartphones like the Firefox OS phone which was released in India three weeks ago, that cost only $33. So people can now afford these devices, but they cannot pay for the data plan, because data plan is going to be an additional $2-4 dollars per month, and that’s too much money. So, with this kind of technology, you can enable people who have this kind of smartphone, now to be able to message each other. It can work in universities, for example, in India, where there’s no data connectivity, very often. So, it’s a very useful technology and I think we’re only at the beginning of the possibilities it is going to offer.

SS: Okay, but listen, this application surges in popularity when protests erupted in Taiwan, and now in Hong Kong. Would it have been as successful without attention, this particular attention related to protests?

MB: That’s the evolution of technologies, you know, the world has to adapt to what’s possible, and FireChat and peer-to-peer mesh networking can do a lot of good, it can bring internet in places where there’s no internet, that means a better access to knowledge, access to information, also. So, these technologies actually bring more good that you could think. And when you look at what happened, indeed in Taiwan with the Sunflower movement, the government was threatening to shut down the Internet, and the students installed the application in case the Internet would have been shut down. This did not happen at the time.

SS: I’m just thinking, when you were working on FireChat, when that was still a work in progress, did it ever phase you that you’re creating a helper to the revolution, a tool for the protest movements?

MB: I wouldn’t take that many credit for the impact of the FireChat in Hong Kong even if I believe indeed that it’s helping people to get organized and to share information and to figure out what’s happening and keep being informed. What’s important is that all these conversations are public, everyone can watch them for what is happening online. It is true that what is happening at the level of the mesh network, it’s pretty difficult – if you are not locally there with your phone – to know what’s happening. For example, we don’t know absolutely what’s happening… If this kind of technology can change and make history for good - I mean, it’s a good thing, we have to live in hot times, and it’s not a good thing to look backwards, and this is opening more opportunities to the world in general. Look at which technology, which company actually brought more wealth in the world in the last 10-15 years? Mainly these are the companies who are acting and playing on the internet. When you bring internet and when you bring connectivity in place where you don’t have connectivity, it’s actually bringing wealth, creating value and I think that’s what is important. We need huge economical growth in the world, you still have 5 billion people who don’t have access to the Internet, but soon, all these people will have smartphone – that means that they would be able to be informed, to learn, or that people will be able to teach – so that’s very important, because that’s going to create more commerce, it is going to create more business opportunities, and it is going to increase the wealth of everyone who will be connected to the Internet. That’s the Great revolution, that’s what really can change the thing on this planet, actually creating more wealth to everyone thanks to access to information and to technologies, by broadening the access to these technologies, so everyone can access the internet and exchange information. When you do commerce, it’s an exchange, and connectivity is the way to multiplying this exchange, it’s the platform to make exchanges happening.

SS: So, you have said that anyone, pretty much anyone, can join FireChat. Does this mean that for example nothing prevents the police from joining FireChat as well?

MB: Yes, anyone can go on the application, that’s why to actually make sure that the people who post a lot information are people you can trust, we just released yesterday a new feature of FireChat, which is called Verified accounts and we invite leaders of opinion, reporters who are actually are sending a lot information on FireChat to contact us to get their verified account and that way you can know when you have someone who posts a lot of information – that that information can be trusted. So, that’s one way to secure the network and make it more efficient.

SS: But usually, when there is an application that’s accessible pretty much to anyone, it can also be used by criminals, by terrorists. Do you see a danger there? I mean, this is something that happened for example with Bitcoin..

MB: I see that today, the internet is accessible by anyone, and when you look at large social networks, I mean, every player in this industry is facing the same problems to solve. But they are little problems to solve, compared to the positive impact that it brings for everyone. So, I’m not worried about that, and as we move on, we secure more and modern network, we seek to bring right technologies or take the right decisions to actually improve and make sure there’s no illicit activity that happens on the network. On thing, also, for example…

SS: So you’re saying it’s controlled and it’s monitored somehow?

MB: The parts that happen online, users can actually report if there’s an abuse they notice in the chatroom, and then users can by themselves, also, decided to block anyone that they don’t want to see talking to them, so it’s a self-correction of the network by the people who use it. It’s done in a way that is…an organic creation, the same way the application today is installed, it is cured by the users of the application, organically.

SS: Is it possible to block FireChat, stop it from working, for example?

C)Once you have the application installed on your phone, and you are around people who have the application, even like it happened here, when the network was congested, when you have no access to the internet, no access to the cellular network, but you can keep sending and receiving messages, so it’s like – to give you the comparison - like people who can create their own internet. We have a base-line at Open Garden where we say “You are the Internet” and it’s exactly that. Basically, this is the base for the new internet which is completely decentralized and which will be unstoppable, but also much more robust – and that’s great, because the Internet is moving to mobile devices, like I was saying before, the link from the mobile device to the cell tower – it’s pretty weak and light, so this kind of technologies can reinforce the robustness of the network.

SS: So the only way to stop it or to block it is actually to literally take away your cellphone, right?

MB: Yes, you can try to actually take the cellphone of…

SS: No, no, I’m just trying to understand for myself – is that the only way to stop it, prevent it from working – if you actually, physically take away the cellphone from a person? Other than that, there’s just no danger of FireChat being stopped or blocked?

MB: No, the only way is to take away the phone from people who have the application, and you make sure they don’t use their smartphone or they don’t use another smartphone…

SS: Do you feel like the governments are taking an interest you and your invention? Why I am asking is because usually they are very worried of things they can’t control and you’re saying that FireChat can’t really be stopped or blocked, unless you take someone’s cellphone away. So do you feel like government is taking interest in you?

MB: This is an app that was created for entertainment, so… I think it’s important not to forget that part, which is the main reason people are using the application. If you go on it, you will see people using FireChat for dating, people having interest in technologies or different kinds of opinions or arts, or music, you see people throwing parties via FireChat.

SS: Yeah, I understand, but it now becomes irrelevant because revolutions are being made through FireChat. The primary purpose is kind of on a background right now. We’re seeing, like, people getting together on a central square of Hong Kong with FireChat.

MB: The interest we see from other people, who are not directly people from industry in whole technology is mainly because it can help bring connectivity in places where it wasn’t possible to bring connectivity before.

SS: I gather you’re not afraid of government retaliation as of yet, right?

MB: No, I think it’s been a solution that governmental organisations have been looking for for a long time. So, I think it’s going to improve situation, like I’ve said, and more and more organisations contact us to know how we can improve security in emergency situations, to have people keep on communicating.

SS: Let me ask you something. FireChat is huge now, it’s super progressive, everyone’s talking about it now, it’s very influential, but are you making any money as of now?

MB: We are generating money, only starting, but we have model where, like I’ve explained, we partner with manufacturers of Internet offerings who can benefit from our network to be able to broadcast information to Internet through the crowd-sourcing of connectivity from our users. We are also licensing our technology to third-party developers, who want to benefit from the technology for their own application and the way we make money is by monetizing the user time. I give you an example: imagine you are playing a game on your tablet. Very often tablets only use Wifi, so if you are in a public place and you want to play your game, and tablet cannot connect to a cellular network, obviously, and cannot connect to Wifi because there’s no Wifi that you can be connected to at that time, now the tablet has the opportunity to connect to other users nearby, that may be able to provide some connectivity. In that case, if you play the game, you’ll keep on seeing ads that normally you wouldn’t see. So once that happens we actually monetize that and we charge the ad network for these ads at this specific moment. If that’s an in-app purchase that’s realised during that extra-user time - the same way, we take a cut of the money from the transaction.

SS: What does FireChat mean for cellphone companies? They’ll be losing money, probably, if FireChat gets too popular?

MB: In terms of messaging, if you look at the revenues from mobile operators - the revenues of messaging are really going down and keep going down, so FireChat is not threat in that way, because the revenues from messaging have already been killed. What it means for mobile operators - it’s a way to have their network be present in places where normally it wouldn’t be, and to reach, actually, more users through this extension of the cellular network, that happens when you have people who use FireChat.

SS: Here’s the big question: FireChat creates a temporary network on a small territory, like, on a stadium, or an office, or a square, like you’ve said. But, can you go bigger with this idea, create a whole new global network, like the Internet, on the basis of this technology, that’s independent from Internet? Doesn’t have to depend on anything, just to be a thing on it’s own, and global?

MB: That’s what we are working for. We aim to make internet become completely pervasive, and I got to say - we have to live our time, this is the beginning of the new Internet, completely decentralised, more robust, that would be made of people and devices. We still need an infrastructure from mobile operators, or from Internet service providers, but this is going to make it more robust and to expand the reach of the Internet. It’s actually a fantastic opportunity for growth, for the whole planet, and it’s only starting now. It’s amazing to see how this technology gets used and the adoption it gets in situations like Hong Kong. But I think it’s only the tip of iceberg. The potential of the technology is much broader than just being used in this case.

SS: You know, like, drones and satellites, and peer-to-peer connectivity are enabling new ways to connect and expand the reach of the Internet - what do you expect to change in the next year,let’s say, five years?

MB: Like I’ve said, you’re going to have 6 billions smartphones that are going to be shipped in the next 3 years. There’s not enough infrastructure and capacity to make all this devices to connect through cellular networks. If you look at solutions, like satellites, or drones or balloons, they are also very expensive and they are going to take a long time before we can see them really providing access and creating more capacity. The Open Garden technology is software, it’s 100% software, completely free, and just by installing this technologies, like FireChat or one of our software on your smartphone, you extend the reach of the Internet and enable devices to have some form of connectivity. An interesting aspect is also, I think, that the perception of connectivity is evolving. Before it meant “all connected to Internet” - very soon you will see that people start to consider connectivity as the proximal connectivity, that means you with your devices and your community nearby and then connectivity to Internet. So it’s like you’ll see the birth of disparate networks that connect from time to time to bigger Internet. It’s very encouraging, it’s very promising in terms of economical growth and peer-to-peer mesh networking solution that we bring, which is 100% software, is actually very appealing to these new markets that are going to be the source of growth for the shipments of smart phone devices. It’s like it is creating a smartphone infrastructure.

SS: Well, can’t wait for that to happen. Thanks a lot for this interesting insight into the world of FireChat. We were talking to CEO of Open Garden, Micha Benoliel. We were talking about the possibilities that FireChat will bring us in the future, and not only that - also, the Internet possibilities in our future. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, stay with us for the next time.