Open Garden, the maker of popular offline messaging app FireChat, announced Thursday a $10.8 million round of funding that it will use to speed up its growth in emerging smartphone markets. FireChat was released early this year and has quickly seen its popularity rise due to its ability to let smartphone users communicate with one another using the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities of their devices -- rather than an Internet or cellular connection -- with each phone acting as a “node” that extends the range of the peer-to-peer network.
The app has been especially popular among protesters around the world, who use it in case a government shuts down the Internet, and music festival-goers, who turn to it when they are in areas with congested Internet connections. Most recently, the app received a boost in usage from democracy protesters in Hong Kong in October, and it has now grown to 5 million users worldwide.
With the latest round of funding, San Francisco-based Open Garden has now raised a total of $12.8 million and is valued at more than $40 million. The latest financing round was led by August Capital. The startup said it is using the money to continue growing its user base. It plans to increase its focus on India, Latin America and Asia -- markets where smartphone sales are growing at rapid rates but data usage is not, due to steep prices and poor infrastructure.
Currently, FireChat can be used to create isolated networks of connected users in dense areas, but as technology improves and increases the range of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, those isolated networks will be able to connect with each other, potentially creating an Internet that does not depend on service providers or wireless carriers.
“The technology is in its infancy, and it’s limited,” said Christophe Daligault, Open Garden’s chief marketing officer. “As the range between devices increases, it will be easier and easier to connect more people, but it's going to start like this. It's going to start as pockets of communities.”
FireChat already can be used to send messages or photos, but in the future, it hopes its offline network will be able to support video, audio and much more.