Caught in a Mesh (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 3-27-14)
This week I thought that I was going to introduce an amazing overlooked piece of technology. I was so proud that I was able to weed it out from all the fluff – that my contribution for once was going to be compelling and relevant! I imagined all my devoted fans overwhelming Twitter with compliments (Hi, Mom!). And in my mind’s eye, I even pictured Joe White demanding my article be featured on the front page of the Metro Spirit web site. It brought a tear to my eye.
So with a childlike enthusiasm, I raced down the stairs and showed my wife this amazing discovery. “Isn’t this great?” I beamed with joy. “Isn’t this the coolest thing ever?” I waited for her validation of my discovery, patiently anticipating the adulation that I deserve and the exaltation that soon will be coming my way.
Her initial response struck me as quite unemotional. Then I heard what she was saying. “Yeah. We use that all the time to share video. I mean, you can’t email mpegs. You really can’t send movies without it.”
The balloon popped, and my ego descended into the bottomless abyss.
While it made is first appearance on the iPhone with iOS7 last fall, I concede that AirDrop is not a new technology. As a matter of fact, AirDrop appeared on iMacs with the release of Lion back in July 2011. Unfortunately, the Mac OS and iOS versions of AirDrop are not compatible. We all hope that will change soon.
AirDrop provides the capability to share files between devices, which of course, is nothing remarkable. However, AirDrop utilizes an ad hoc network to perform the communication. Instead of creating a connection over a shared network, such as a common Wifi access point, AirDrop creates private, peer-to-peer connection directly between the two devices. The two devices can share data without the need for either of them to be connected to the Internet.
While AirPlay is a simple file share application, iOS7 delivers the capability for much more. The iOS7 operation system includes a set of application development tools called the Multipeer Connectivity Framework. This framework provides programs to create ad hoc networks of multiple devices, a “mesh” network. When would a mesh network be useful? A great example would be the recent ice storm. Many folks lost their home Internet and mobile services, and as a result, they lost all connectivity to the outside world. Using the Multipeer Connectivity Framework, a new mesh network would be created using direct smartphone-to-smartphone connections. Applications aware of this network would continue to operate and help people keep in touch.
Applications utilizing Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity Framework are appearing in the marketplace. The mobile messaging application, FireChat, released last week, allows users to share messages and pictures with others nearby. FireChat highlights another feature of peer-to-peer networks. A group of users can form an independent and private network with little oversight or control from a central management source. For example, a mesh network could be setup inside a secure organization, providing an alternative route for information to be removed. On the other hand, if you’re organizing a political protest against a brutal dictator, these mesh networks could work out really well.
As more applications utilize Apple’s multipeer framework, we’ll begin to understand the potential of using mobile devices to create mesh networks. In the meantime, the knowledge that people can connect in ways other than the Internet is useful, even if all you need to do is share video.
Until next time, I’m off the grid. @gregory_a_baker