The app is FireChat, released earlier this year by Open Garden - a San Francisco company that connects iOS or Android users through mesh networking. The technology is based on smartphones' ability to communicate through Bluetooth or radio transmitters.
In the first week of October, Open Garden experienced 460,000 downloads and reported over 5 million chat sessions in Hong Kong alone, second only to the U.S. for usage.
The chat service is anonymous and completely wide open. Any conversation published in FireChat can be read by anyone else. This has served the demonstrators well in Hong Kong as a rapid way to communicate news across a large, tech-savvy user community without worrying about the loss of cell service.
Despite the growing popularity of FireChat, there is one important limitation in the technology: users can only chat with another person up to 210 feet away. Messages are able to reach a mass audience as they "hop" from phone to phone beyond the initial distance.
Micha Benoliel, Open Garden's CEO, has also recently addressed the obvious problem of how to get the app if there is no Internet service (or cell signal). He believes this will be possible moving forward through the ability for people to copy programs between phones or to purchase devices which already have his company's app pre-installed.
Before the demonstrations escalated in Hong Kong, FireChat had experienced early adoption in remote venues where cell service was either poor or nonexistent. It was a hit this summer at festivals such as Burning Man, which attracts a major segment of followers from Silicon Valley for a week of revelry in a hot, remote Nevada desert.
There has also been growing speculation that the app could play a significant role in the expanding wave of connected devices commonly known as the Internet of Things (IoT). As more devices demand connections to an Internet server, a mesh network like Open Garden could take some of the pressure off until a live web link can be efficiently found.
Open Garden offered a hint of how their IoT technology might work when they recently announced a partnership deal with TrackR, a maker of Bluetooth-enabled tracking tags. If you report a lost bag that has one of TrackR's tags, the device will start reaching out to other users in the immediate area using FireChat to report the location.
In 2010 and 2011, Twitter fueled communications as demonstrators took to the streets during the "Arab Spring" in cities across the Middle East. With the rapid adoption of FireChat over the past few weeks in Hong Kong, we are seeing another leap in the use of unusual new technology to shape major global events.