Open Garden is using FireChat to build a network for the internet of things

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Credit: TrackR

Thanks to the popularity of its FireChat hyperlocal messaging app, Open Garden’s networking software has been downloaded into more than 5 million mobile devices around the world. Open Garden believes it now has enough users out there to execute the next the stage of its plan: it wants to use all of these smartphone nodes to create a new network for the internet of things.

This concept probably requires some explaining as it doesn’t fit into any of the other IoT networking schemes we’ve written about in the past. Unlike say your smart home, which uses a hub to aggregate a bunch of Zigbee or Wi-Fi connections, or a connected vehicle fleet, which taps into the cellular network, Open Garden’s IoT network would be created through millions of shared connections owned by you, me or anyone else with one of its apps on their smartphones, tablets or PCs.

Open Garden’s concept for ad hoc networking where every device and smartphone can share their radio connections (source: Open Garden)

Open Garden’s concept for ad hoc networking where every device and smartphone can share their radio connections (source: Open Garden)

Open Garden’s apps all have one thing in common: they create networks on the fly from the connections all around us. These kind of ad hoc networks will connect nearby smartphones and tablets, each of which will act as node that can either receive data or pass it along. Open Garden’s apps then use these networks for different things.

In the case of FireChat, those ad hoc Bluetooth or Wi-Fi networks let nearby users communicate without an internet connection, passing their conversations through a chain of intermeshed smartphones. In the case of its bandwidth-sharing app, devices within the same mesh network can borrow each other’s internet connections.

The underlying ad hoc networking technology is the same though the applications themselves are different, said Christophe Daligault, Open Garden VP of marketing and sales. That means there is plenty of opportunity to hang more apps and devices on Open Garden’s network, and it’s starting at the CTIA Wireless conference in Las Vegas, where it announced a partnership with smart tag maker TrackR.

TrackR’s Bluetooth-enabled tracking tags already use ad hoc networking to help you find your lost items. If you report an item lost, its tag will start reaching out to other TrackR users via their smartphone apps. If the network detects a lost tag it will report its location to its rightful owner, dropping a pin on a map. What Open Garden is doing is greatly expanding the scope of that locator network by allowing TrackR tags to communicate with every smartphone with the FireChat or Open Garden app.

Basically TrackR is putting millions more phones on the lookout for its customers’ lost goods. It all happens in the background so users FireChat aren’t interrupting their own smartphone activities to hunt for a lost set of keys or misplaced bag. And that’s just one of many possible apps that could make use of the network, Daligault said.

The TrackR tag on a dog collar (source: TrackR)

The TrackR tag on a dog collar (source: TrackR)

Instead of relying on Wi-Fi or cellular, sensor networks could rely on ad hoc networks to intermittently upload your data. When an Open Garden-enabled smartphone wanders by it uploads its data via a Bluetooth Low Energy Radio, using the smartphone’s 3G or 4G connection as bridge to the cloud. Many of the devices of the internet of things have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, but don’t sport cellular connections. They could all use an ad hoc network for that final hop to the internet.

Building a bigger ad hoc network

Though TrackR isn’t opting to do so, any developer could incorporate Open Garden’s connection-sharing technology into its smartphone apps, which essentially make them nodes on the growing ad hoc network. The more nodes on the network, the more chance any given device can form a connection, and the more benefit accrues to every service and user on the network – even if each individual user is only using one of the possible applications.

Of course, this kind of shared networking comes with controversy. It’s one thing for Open Garden to ask its customers to participate directly in a shared messaging network like FireChat. It’s another thing to ask them to use their phones as way-stations for other traffic they have no interest in and control over. Though the TrackR device connecting to your FireChat phone is only sending the minutest amount of data over its cellular connection, it’s still using your data plan all the same.

Micha Benoliel Open Garden Sascha Meinrath New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute Steven van Wel Karma Mobilize 2013

Open Garden founder Micha Benoliel (second from right) speaking at GigaOM Mobilize 2013 (c) 2013 Pinar Ozger pinar@pinarozger.com

Open Garden, however, has been emphasizing from is foundation that these kinds of trade-offs will be necessary if we’re to build an internet where all things are connected efficiently and cheaply at all times. While the person or device next to you may be using your internet connection to transfer his data one day, your device or tablet might be using his radio the next. And though Open Garden claims its network is secure, keeping transient data isolated from the data on its devices, any time one device connects to another, the risk of security breach always increases.

The new TrackR features will be enabled in Open Garden’s next update to its messaging and internet sharing apps, and Daligault said the company would make it very clear in its new terms of service that this kind of ad hoc networking will be going on in the background. As for future apps beyond TrackR, Open Garden will put restrictions on just how much data any device or app can use in order to prevent its users’ data plans from being drained. So if you were hoping for (or fearing) ad hoc video sharing it’s not going happen, at least not yet.

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