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The hottest trend in mobile: going offline!

Mike Elgan | May 26, 2014
The consumer electronics industry has spent the last 20 years making everything connect wirelessly to the Internet -- from PCs to TVs, cameras to speakers.

Square is a point-of-sale product and service for phones and tablets that enables small companies and even individuals to accept credit cards and payments generally. With great fanfare, the company recently rolled out an offline mode, which enables companies to swipe credit cards without a connection. Once a connection is re-established, the payment is processed.

Offline connectivity

And then there's offline connectivity.

Wait, what?

When Internet access is unavailable, the only option is to just deal with it. Or is it?

A new technology in Apple's iOS 7, called the Multipeer Connectivity Framework, enables connectivity in places where the Internet is inaccessible. It does this by enabling mesh networking, or peer-to-peer connections, by apps that are explicitly designed to support Multipeer Connectivity Framework technology.

Wireless mesh networks are made possible by the use of radio nodes that can both connect and be connected to by other wireless mesh devices, forming an ad hoc chain of peer-to-peer connectivity.

Depending on the app, two kinds of networks can be formed with Multipeer Connectivity Framework technology. One is an isolated network, which is formed when, say, 10 devices connect and communicate with one another but aren't connected to the Internet in any way. The other is a chain of devices that connect to each other and back to an Internet-connected device, thereby bringing Internet connectivity to all of them.

Let's say Janet, Steve and Mark all want to chat with each other. With regular wireless connectivity, each of them would have to be within range of and connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot or a wireless phone company's cell tower. It's a hub-and-spoke configuration, with each device on the network connecting to a hub of some kind.

With wireless mesh networking, Janet, Steve and Mark could set up their own isolated network or they could form a chain back to an Internet connection.

In the isolated network scenario, none of them have Internet access, but they can connect with each other in their own network via mesh networking.

And they could form a chain if just one of them had an Internet connection. Say Janet has a Wi-Fi connection but Steve and Mark are out of range but are near Janet — say, within 100 feet or so. In that scenario, Steve could connect to Janet and Mark could connect to Steve, and they could all share Janet's connection.

One of the first apps to support the Multipeer Connectivity Framework is FireChat from Open Garden. FireChat lets people hold conversations, even if they're in a wireless Internet dead zone. FireChat uses both the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios in an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet to create a mesh network.


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