Student demonstrators in Taipei, Taiwan, staged a three-week blockade of the country's parliament building in March and April. The occupation fought against a controversial trade pact with China. With 300,000 protesters taking to the streets and hundreds demonstrating inside cabinet offices, fears grew that the pro-Beijing government would retaliate by cutting off Internet access, severing the main way these groups coordinated their rallies.
Just days earlier, a new phone application debuted that seems designed for exactly such a situation. FireChat can send messages from one phone to another even where there is no Internet connection. Rather than relying on cellular service, these dispatches leapfrog to nearby phones, passing along the message from device to device until it reaches its destination.
"We launched FireChat and three days later we saw it become the No. 1 app in Taiwan," says Christophe Daligault, head of sales and marketing for Open Garden in San Francisco. The company has worked for years on mesh networks – small webs of connected devices that don't need access to the wider Internet.
While the team at Open Garden imagined people using the app during an outdoor music festival or as part of an emergency-rescue plan after a disaster, Mr. Daligault says he loved watching peaceful protesters adopt the app – even if the Taiwanese government never wound up shutting off Internet connections, as leaders in Egypt and Syria have done in recent years.
In its current form, FireChat comes with some big caveats. It can pass along texts and photos only to phones within a 30-foot radius, and those other devices must also have FireChat installed. The app works on iPhone and Android devices, but the two versions cannot send messages to each other because they use different underlying technology.
Right now, FireChat is a proof of concept. Open Garden wants to work with other groups to create mesh networks in communities around the world.
Telecommunications giant Qualcomm has shown off nascent technology that could extend the range of such services to hundreds of feet. As mesh networks develop, Daligault says, they could help the global effort to connect the "next billion people."
For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.