Tag Archives: tech


Fact checking the hype around mesh networks and FireChat

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

screen322x572  screen322x572-2

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 to 500,000. 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 show 208k 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

2015-01-12 11_14_24

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.”

Xiaomi’s vaguely familiar design and a Chinese bitcoin mine

In case you’re not following consultant-turned-VC Benedict Evans‘ newsletter on mobile technology (which is excellent and highly recommended), here are the China-related gems from this week:

Xiaomi unveiled the latest version of its custom flavor of Android. Lot of interesting and innovative features in there. The design language, though, looks… vaguely familiar. Link

Apple is now storing Chinese user data on Chinese soil. Link

Joi Ito: visiting Shenzhen. Link

Inside a Chinese Bitcoin mine. $60k a month in power bills. Link

The Chinese taxi app wars. Link [paywall]

Smartisan – one of the many Chinese companies trying to innovate on top of Android. Link

More information about Benedict Evans, his newsletter and how to subscribe.

*

UPDATE: related to the first quoted link:

The Sticker Wars: WeChat’s creatives go up against Line (updated)

ICYMI, the background for this story:

  • “Line” is a chat app for iOS/Android.
  • It’s from Japan.
  • It sells different sets of stickers, well-illustrated emoticons.
  • Line is probably the first chat app to find a booming revenue model. (See TNW.)
  • Other chat apps (WeChat, KakaoTalk, Kik) have caught on and have quickly implemented their own version of stickers.

In this feature on 88 Bar, we analyze Line’s sticker success and look at how China’s WeChat has caught up.

 

The incumbent: Line

Line’s core line of stickers is quite something. Cute characters, stark expressions, and plenty of comical situations that are just vague enough to apply to whatever situation might come up in a conversation. (It really works; I’ve bought nine sticker sets to date myself on top of a dozen or so free ones.)

They are also distinctly Japanese – the art style is very clean; people and creatures have large heads; the expressions are based on Japanese manga conventions…

LineStickersSample1

But most importantly, the most popular stickers, which involves the love story between a bear and and a bunny, mirror stereotypical (East Asian) male-female relationship dynamics:

    Note the stoic male character versus the shopaholic and emotionally effusive female character.

Note the stoic male character versus the shopaholic and emotionally effusive female character.

Not only has Line created a great set of their own stickers, but they’ve managed to rope in some of Japan’s most popular cartoon characters – Hello Kitty, Doraemon, Dragonball – as well as some from America – Spongebob SquarePants, Donald Duck, Snoopy. Line also runs many time-limited promotions; their “Pray for the Philippines” stickers,  following the recent devastating typhoon was pure genius (it even donated the proceeds to a charity!).

 

WeChat

At first, it seemed that WeChat’s sole innovation with its stickers system was that they were animated. My favorite example is that when they launched, they had already licensed the now Turner-owned Tuzki line of emoticons that were all the rage on the Chinese internet (albeit 5-10 years ago).

Editor’s note: Please note all animations below have been reproduced by hand as GIFs. The actual stickers contain smoother animations than what we’ve depicted below.

Tuzki

Tuzki

But aside from Tuzki, their initial sticker packs felt somewhat weaker. Some resembled Line’s Japanese creations but without the punch:

Nervous Boy by Caerux

Nervous Boy by Caerux

While others had a flat, commercial personality:

DADA by 2SPOT

DADA by 2SPOT

More importantly, these sticker sets did not capture the nuanced emotions and complex backstories that are the hallmark of a Line sticker and that make it a great conversational lubricant.

But recently WeChat’s stickers have started to develop a style of its own. The recent sticker packs are great not because they try to mimic the polished, “Hello Kitty” style from Line; they succeed because they’re whacky, weird and funny in their own way. There’s a very Chinese flavor to them; the grainy lines, absurd sense of humor and adult style all remind me of the kind of illustration and design coming out of China today.

Frog and Horse by XiaoYaoJi

Frog and Horse by XiaoYaoJi

What’s interesting is that the stickers themselves aren’t always created in Mainland China; many are from Hong Kong (Old Girl, Fatina, AH FEI@GAL), Taiwan (Sinkcomic) and even their Japanese acquisitions aren’t as clean and cute as the Line products.

WeChatAHFEIGAL

AH FEI@GAL by Graphic Airlines

It’s still too early to tell whether WeChat’s sticker system will continue to evolve. But as it stands, it’s already catching up to Line, and jumping ahead of its competitors (Kik and KakaoTalk both had relatively immature sticker systems, with only a handful of sticker sets or with no free stickers respectively).

***

Update 24 Apr 2014: Through conversations within our group, we’ve noticed that WeChat offers different sets of stickers on their store depending on where (they think) you live. So the stickers cited in my article may disproportionately represent Hong Kong because WeChat knows I’m based here. Right now, this geographic targeting seems minor as the majority of the stickers seem to be offered to both people living in Hong Kong and the US (our two test cases).

Update 26 June 2014: Line is testing the waters with their first animated sticker pack featuring their core characters. Launched June 12.

Stats: The kinds of tech startups in HK

Last month, my friend Paul Orlando and I launched Startup Hug*, an experiment in cultivating an early adopter community here in Hong Kong. As part of the process, we evaluated over 130 local startup websites (the list came from Paul’s We Are HK Tech). One side product is that we categorized and annotated this list of 130.

While the data is still up to date, I wanted to share some of the statistics that we found – though do keep in mind the margin of error as this has been one night’s work:

HK startup types
Additional notes:

  • While games only made up 6% of the startups, they actually represent a relatively mature sector here.
  • I was surprised by the number of content startups, given the relative dearth of a reading-blogging culture locally.
  • Only 14% of startups offered (physical) goods, of which only a handful were genuine hardware startups. This seems low given Hong Kong’s proximity to Shenzhen and history of toy/clothing manufacturing.
  • 45 startups (35%) offered free (or freemium) products/services.
  • Productivity tools were nowhere to be found.
  • China-targeting startups were rare (probably less than 10%), which either speaks to the difficulty of doing that from Hong Kong or a lack of trying.

Want to find out more? See the four startups we chose to feature on Startup Hug or see the updated list of startups at We Are HK Tech.

* Disclaimer: Shameless plug.