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The Reality Behind Hong Kong’s FireChat

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Being based in Hong Kong, my tech friends and I still occasionally get asked, “So what’s the deal with FireChat?” In case you missed it, FireChat, a smartphone chat app with basic mesh support, made headlines during the recent Occupy Hong Kong protests. Protesters on the ground here turned to it in late September when rumors began to circulate that the government would shut down the internet. It never did, but plenty of people, myself included, downloaded FireChat anyway. Hearing about this, many publications then used FireChat to tell a techno-utopian story about the future of mesh networking. Yet in the same stories, many publications pointed to faulty evidence of, or simply speculated about, people using its mesh features. (The sole exception being TechPresident’s Rebecca Chao, who actually found real evidence of its use.) As the hype has subsided, we at 88 Bar have decided that it’s a good time to review the facts and figures around FireChat.

 

1. FireChat was built for concerts and Burning Man

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Figure 1: Press images are from its listing in the iTunes store.

 

2. FireChat is “not meant for secure or private communications”

The full quote that FireChat gave Wired last June is: “People need to understand that this is not a tool to communicate anything that would put them in a harmful situation if it were to be discovered by somebody who’s hostile. It was not meant for secure or private communications.” (This is, of course, months before they went on the speaking circuit to market its use during the recent Hong Kong protests.)

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab ran a full, tech analysis and concluded: “Messages sent in any of the application’s three messaging modes are sent in the clear without encryption. All messages sent and received, as well as a list of chat channels the user has joined, are stored unencrypted on the device. It is also possible for anyone (regardless of whether they have installed the app or not) to visit an IP address associated with the service in a web browser to see the most recent messages sent by users of the application.”

 

3. Lots of people in Hong Kong signed up for FireChat

Sign up figures for FireChat in Hong Kong during the protests range from 100,000 to500,000. Assuming only a small number of “troll” accounts and that not every protestor would have downloaded the app, this would imply that there were at least 100,000 to 500,000 people who downloaded it to support the protest. (Estimates say roughly 200,000 people took part in the Hong Kong protests at its peak.)

And according to FireChat’s twitter account, people are still using it: their stats show208k chat sessions on December 16, 2014.

 

4. But FireChat put Hong Kong citizens in danger during the protests

Not only are messages unencrypted, but it encourages the use of real names. Again from Global Voices: “Once installed, the app requires the user to sign up with her real name (which will be pre-filled with the name she eventually configures on her iOS or Android phone), a username and an email address.”

This is especially troubling because police have arrested at least two people in Hong Kong who posted protest-related messages online. See Quartz’s “police are using Hong Kong’s computer crime law to crack down on pro-democracy organizers.”

 

5. Protesters did use its mesh networking capability, but there’s only one report of it

Of the dozens of articles published on FireChat during Occupy Hong Kong, I only found one report that found evidence of mesh network usage. From Rebecca Chao on TechPresident:

As a volunteer, Ip was among a group of roughly 60 to 120 that monitored the supply stations. He used FireChat to recruit more volunteers. While verification is an issue in the app’s anonymous chat room settings, Ip says that given the proximity needed for off-grid use, “we could meet up instantly to confirm who I was and what volunteers we wanted and to ensure they got the right information.”

The other reports sadly only pointed to evidence of use of its internet (not mesh) chatrooms:

  • In a Wall Street Journal video cited in The Atlantic, The Verge, and TechCrunch, a Hong Kong student protester who shows off FireChat only uses its internet-enabled chatrooms, not its mesh network chatrooms.
  • When FireChat talks about its explosion 2M chatrooms created last month, they are referring to internet chatrooms. As Forbes’ Parmy Olson says, “Once a FireChat user goes off the grid like this, San Francisco-based Open Garden can’t track them anymore. That’s why they have no idea how many people are actually using its off-the-grid feature.”
  • In another Wall Street Journal video, the reporter and FireChat CEO are testing the mesh network function in the middle of the protests. It’s clear they are the only two chatting on the mesh network channel. My own experiments with my friend in the middle of the protest fared similarly.

 

6. FireChat is an IRC-like chatroom app, not a messaging app

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Figure 2: A 12-second clip of FireChat in action (as of 11am, January 12, 2015). Picture shrunk in order to conceal username + locations.

As Nathan Freitas and Oiwan Lam write in Global Voices: “FireChat is not a messaging app. FireChat is a chatroom, a platform to send insecure and public messages to people over the Internet or within your geographical vicinity.” As such it is not a replacement for Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Line or WeChat.

During the Hong Kong protests, everyone I spoke to said that Facebook and WhatsApp were by far the most commonly used communication tools. This isn’t to say FireChat wasn’t used, but it’s good to put its popularity into perspective.

 

P.S. The Hong Kong mobile network did not “collapse”

Nellie Bowles writes in Recode that “during the recent enormous pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the city’s cellular networks got so jammed they collapsed.” I have seen no reports to that effect (congestion yes, collapse no). As one protester stated in TechPresident, “I found that my LTE [4G] connection was pretty solid in most cases, even with tens of thousands of protesters around me.”

written by Jason Li of 88Bar. see more.

Entrepreneurship

What Kills A Startup

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1 – Being inflexible and not actively seeking or using customer feedback

Ignoring your users is a tried and true way to fail. Yes that sounds obvious but this was the #1 reason given for failure amongst the 32 startup failure post-mortems we analyzed. Tunnel vision and not gathering user feedback are fatal flaws for most startups. For instance, ecrowds, a web content management system company, said that “ We spent way too much time building it for ourselves and not getting feedback from prospects — it’s easy to get tunnel vision. I’d recommend not going more than two or three months from the initial start to getting in the hands of prospects that are truly objective.”

2 – Building a solution looking for a problem, i.e., not targeting a “market need”

Choosing to tackle problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was often cited as a reason for failure. Sure, you can build an app and see if it will stick, but knowing there is a market need upfront is a good thing. “Companies should tackle market problems not technical problems” according to the BricaBox founder. One of the main reasons BricaBox failed was because it was solving a technical problem. The founder states that, “While it’s good to scratch itches, it’s best to scratch those you share with the greater market. If you want to solve a technical problem, get a group together and do it as open source.”

3 – Not the right team

A diverse team with different skill sets was often cited as being critical to the success of a starti[ company. Failure post-mortems often lamented that “I wish we had a CTO from the start, or wished that the startup had “a founder that loved the business aspect of things”. In some cases, the founding team wished they had more checks and balances. As Nouncers founder stated, “This brings me back to the underlying problem I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made.” Wesabe founder also stated that he was the sole and quite stubborn decision maker for much of the enterprises life, and therefore he can blame no one but himself for the failures of Wesabe. Team deficiencies were given as a reason for startup failure almost 1/3 of the time.

4 – Poor Marketing

Knowing your target audience and knowing how to get their attention and convert them to leads and ultimately customers is one of the most important skills of a successful business. Yet, in almost 30% of failures, ineffective marketing was a primary cause of failure. Oftentimes, the inability to market was a function of founders who liked to code or build product but who didn’t relish the idea of promoting the product. The folks at Devver highlighted the need to find someone who enjoys creating and finding distribution channels and developing business relationship for the company as a key need that startups should ensure they fill.

5 – Ran out of cash

Money and time are finite and need to be allocated judiciously. The question of how should you spend your money was a frequent conundrum and reason for failure cited by failed startups. The decision on whether to spend significantly upfront to get the product off the group or develop gradually over time is a tough act to balance. The team at YouCastr cited money problems as the reason for failure but went on to highlight other reasons for shutting down vs. trying to raise more money writing:

The single biggest reason we are closing down (a common one) is running out of cash. Despite putting the company in an EXTREMELY lean position, generating revenue, and holding out as long as we could, we didn’t have the cash to keep going. The next few reasons shed more light as to why we chose to shut down instead of finding more cash.

The old saw was that more companies were killed by poor cashflow than anything else, but factors 1, 2 and 4 probably are the main contributing factors to that problem. No cash, no flow. The issue No 3 – the team – is interesting, as if I take that comment ” I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made” and think about some of the founders and startup CEOs I know, I can safely say that the main way that any decision was made was by agreeing with them – it was “my way or the highway”. I don’t therefore “buy” the team argument, I more buy the willingness of the key decision makers to change when things are not working (aka “pivoting” – point 9).

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About the Author

This article was produced by Broadsight. Broadsight is an attempt to build a business not just to consult to the emerging Broadband Media / Quadruple Play / Web 2.0 world, but to be structured according to its open principles. see more.

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Callum Connects

Jasmine Tan, Director of Stone Amperor

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Jasmine saves her clients time and effort when doing kitchen fit outs with her biz Stone Amperor.

What’s your story?
I started working in the industry in 2003. I was in a marble and granite supplier company for 5 years. Even though I left the company, I still had customers calling me for my services. I referred them back to my previous company but they refused to because they loved the fast response service that I offered. I realised that customers do look at prices, however most of them prefer quality over quantity. Thus I have decided to establish a sole proprietor company also known as 78 Degrees which later rebranded as Stone Amperor in 2014.

What excites you most about your industry?
The kitchen countertop industry is a very confusing market. There are many brands, materials and prices to choose from. What excites me the most is my ability to help clients choose the best materials and brands within their budgets, whilst saving them time and effort.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I have been in Asia all my life and I love Asia. No matter where you go there is no place like home.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I love Singapore. This is because Singapore has always been a stable country and it is great for doing business. However as it is a small country, it can be really competitive. I believe that if just do your best and give your best to your customers, you can overcome this.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Take actions. Learn and improve continuously. An idea without action is just a dream.” This was really good advice that I received from my partner.

Who inspires you?
A very down to earth billionaire from Malaysia, Robert Kuok

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Property is the foundation of every business.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Own instead of renting property for my business.

How do you unwind?
I enjoy going shopping, watching movies and hanging out with friends. I am quite a simple being.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love going to Taiwan as I love the culture there. Everyone is so polite and the weather is great.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Sun Tzu, Art of war

Shameless plug for your business:
Perfect top, Perfect price, Perfect life from Stone Amperor

How can people connect with you?
Email me at [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@StoneAmperor

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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