Apple's iOS 7 taking cellular out of networking

Cellular? You "don't need no stinking" cellular if you have Open Garden's recently released FireChat app, which is driving interest in a heretofore little-known connectivity feature that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)  included in iOS 7.

firechatFireChat enables iPhones to leverage iOS 7's Apple Multipeer Connectivity framework to link directly via Bluetooth personal area networks (PANs), peer-to-peer Wi-Fi or a traditional Wi-Fi network, obviating the need for access to a cellular network. OpenGarden's website indicates the company is working on a Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android version of FireChat as well.

Micha Benoliel, Open Garden's CEO and cofounder, told MIT Technology Review that more Internet-optional apps will be enabled through an upcoming release of software tools designed to help developers build FireChat-style apps for iOS, Google Android, Mac and Windows devices.

Anthony DiPasquale, a developer with consultancy Thoughtbot, said although most developers remain unaware of iOS 7 multipeer connectivity, "it's an awesome framework with a lot of potential."

Apple described the workings of the Multipeer Connectivity framework on its developer site in September 2013. And back in December 2013, engineer Mattt Thompson wrote that "multi-peer connectivity has implications on everything from collaborative editing and file sharing to multiplayer gaming and sensor aggregation."

However, until now no major third-party apps have leveraged the capabilities offered by the multipeer framework to create and use mesh networks.

San Francisco-based Open Garden's FireChat app requires iOS 7.0 and, while it is compatible with iPhone, iPad and iPod touch the app is optimized for the iPhone 5. FireChat works much like Apple's own AirDrop function, which enables devices using iOS 7 to share files with one another using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi once they are logged into iCloud.

FireChat has achieved an impressive number of downloads since being introduced on March 20. On March 30, App Annie said the app had reached the No. 1 spot in the Apple App Store's social networking category in 13 countries and had made it into the top 10 social networking apps in 79 countries.

Applications for FireChat are numerous. For example, attendees at large events can share messages and photos with others nearby without clogging the cellular networks. In emergency situations such as natural disasters, local communications can be maintained despite non-working landline or cellular networks. The mesh networking function would allow users to relay messages from device to device, expanding the overall network's reach beyond immediate PAN or Wi-Fi coverage areas.

Mesh networking can also be used to frustrate the U.S. National Security Agency and oppressive governments that restrict Internet access. And because FireChat only identifies users by their username, which they can change on the fly, the app could help protect user identities. Of course, that also means the app could become a favorite of terrorists or others bent on nefarious activities.

Similarly, illegal sharing of files, such as MP3s, can be enabled via mesh networking, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) would have a tough time identifying anyone sharing the files via FireChat.

However, there is a major security issue with apps that rely upon peer-to-peer and mesh networking because eavesdroppers using a device within range can access local traffic, which is receivable by anyone within range.

Cult of Mac noted that Google also appears quite interested in consumer-level mesh networking, particularly as it applies to home automation (think of its Nest acquisition) and wearable devices such as fitting into its Android Wear initiative.

For more:
- see this MIT Technology Review article
- see this App Annie ranking
- see this Cult of Mac article
- see this Wired article

Related articles:
Open Garden releases app to share public Wi-Fi passwords
Apple's iOS 7 proves it's a Wi-Fi world
Open Garden's crowdsourced Wi-Fi appeals to carriers, automakers
Open Garden to enable channel bonding over Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G