When Open Garden launched its new anonymous messaging app FireChat in iTunes last week it expected to draw some attention, but its creators were shocked by just how much attention it got. As of Tuesday, FireChat was being downloaded from the App Store more than 100,000 times a day, adding 1.14 new users a second, Open Garden told Gigaom.
Open Garden reached the No. 12 slot app in the U.S. iTunes charts in the social networking category this week, wedging itself between over-the-top messaging giants Viber and Tango (though it has since fallen to No. 23), but it’s been doing much better internationally. At various points this week it was the No. 1 iOS social networking app in Australia, Chile and Taiwan and No. 2 in Belgium, Israel, Norway and Sweden. The company wouldn’t reveal its download totals since launch, though, saying it’s holding onto that data point for competitive reasons.
“It’s doing very well and we’re almost overwhelmed by the success,” Open Garden co-founder and CEO Micha Benoliel (pictured above) said via email. Open Garden put together this graphic of many of the countries where it’s cracked the top eleven:
FireChat isn’t just an anonymous chat app. It lets you communicate without a network connection. It uses Apple’s new multipeer connectivity framework in iOS7 allowing iOS devices to establish direct connections over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi without an internet connection acting as intermediary. Open Garden has further applied its multi-hop mesh technology to the app, which lets devices form long connectivity chains. There’s really no geographic limit to how big the ad hoc chat network can grow if there are enough active FireChat devices to fill in the gaps.
As for how many people are forming these hyperlocal networks, Open Garden can’t say. In fact, it has no way of tracking. Since they’re communicating over local radios, none of those messages are traversing its servers, and all message history disappears once the app is closed. According to VP of sales and marketing Christophe Daligault, Open Garden believes it’s seeing a lot of hyperlocal communications in countries like Australia and Taiwan where it’s suddenly seeing huge spikes in downloads.
“I think that’s indicative of when the density reaches the tipping point to enable the hyperlocal scenarios,” Daligault said in an email. “Because the app provides the most benefits when more people around you have it, there is a natural incentive to invite your friends, family and colleagues. This might be the viral component that is fueling these explosions.”
Anticipating that the app would take some time to reach critical mass, Open Garden launched the app with a global mode, which actually uses a network connection to link a user to the mother of all chat rooms. At first everyone who opened global mode was in the same room, but that quickly became untenable as tens of thousands of people logged in simultaneously. Since then Open Garden has begun segmenting the chat rooms by country and auto-splitting rooms after they reach 80 users.
FireChat’s success is all the more surprising since it was kind of a side project for Open Garden. The startup’s main business model is crowdsourced internet connectivity through its ad hoc mesh networking technology. Open Garden has been trying to bring its Android only internet sharing app to iOS, but it’s had trouble overcoming Apple’s closed operating system. When Apple launched the multipeer framework, however, the company felt a communications app would be a good way to stake a claim on iOS turf and draw attention to its technology, Benoliel told me.
It took Open Garden more than a month to see 100,000 downloads of its initial app (its internet sharing apps now have 3.3 million total users). FireChat is now seeing those numbers on a daily basis. Of course, we could just be witnessing a mobile fad, driven by the initial media attention surrounding FireChat’s launch and the app’s novelty. It’s eventual success probably depends on its “nearby” function building scale and finding a following. Right now its global mode is a mishmash of random messages.
For his part, Benoliel seems to be keeping his expectations realistic. He said he believes FireChat does tap into a combination of unmet needs for both hyperlocal and anonymous communications. But he’s also willing to see how things play out in the coming months.
“We’ll see if FireChat will be a revolution,” Benoliel said. “As of now it’s fair to say it’s an explosion.”