Does the addition of private messaging mean FireChat now rivals WhatsApp?

By staff writer, with additional reporting by Tim Chen

The app that became popular during the Occupy protests in Hong Kong has announced a new private messaging function

By staff writer, with additional reporting by Tim Chen |

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FireChat now rivals popular apps such as Facebook Messenger, WeChat and WhatsApp

FireChat, the app that became popular in Hong Kong during last year's Occupy Central, got a major update yesterday as developers introduced private messaging.

When connected to the internet, FireChat now functions like WhatsApp or any other messaging app. But if the signal is weak, or entirely absent, the app will use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to bounce messages between phones until it can find an internet connection.

Designed by start-up Open Garden, FireChat was originally intended for use in areas where communication networks can be overcrowded by high traffic volume, such as concerts or stadiums, or remote areas with poor to no signal.

However, FireChat became hugely popular during the early days of the Occupy Central protests, after rumours that the police would shut off phone networks circulated. The app was also used by protesters in Iraq and Ecuador last year.

Many people worried that messages would be transmitted to public chatrooms, and could bounce between and be stored in multiple phones before reaching the intended recipient, but the private messaging function changes that.

"All FireChat private messages are encrypted from end-to-end," the company said, adding that "only the sender and the recipient can read a private message".

The app will now compete with giants such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat. More than 500,000 Hongkongers have already installed it but some, like Daniel Hurworth of Hong Kong International School, who says it doesn't seem as convenient as other messaging apps, will need convincing.