A Singapore-based startup called Fonemesh is preparing a mesh networking client for mobile phones, starting with the Linux-based OpenMoko Neo FreeRunner platform. The Fonemesh software identifies other Fonemesh users who are in WiFi range to set up a direct mesh connection for IM chat, VoIP, and file transfer, says Fonemesh.
OpenMoko's Neo FreeRunner
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Fonesmesh is still in partial stealth mode, but gave a sneak peak of its software several weeks ago at the Mobilize conference in San Francisco. Fonemesh will soon launch a proof of concept application for OpenMoko's Neo FreeRunner platform, which was chosen in large part due to the openness of the phone's Linux-based development environment.
The entirely client-based app is written in C and C++, said CEO Caleb Kow in an interview. “The software will let Fonemesh phones detect each other when they are within range, and transfer files automatically,” said Kow.
In addition to providing basic network discovery and file transfer, Fonemesh will come with some simple sample applications for VoIP and instant messaging (IM). A software development kit (SDK) will incorporate an application programming interface (API) and tools for building social networking and location-based marketing applications using mesh networking, said Kow.
Mesh networking technology offers a direct connection between nodes using wireless networks such as WiFi, Bluetooth, or ZigBee. Since any mesh node can communicate with any other mesh node within range, networks can be established that enable continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths.
Fonemesh is in some ways similar to zero configuration, or “Zeroconf” networking discovery applications such as Apple's Bonjour, which was previously called Rendezvous. Unlike the ad hoc Bonjour, however, Fonemesh offers certificates on applications to provide centralized security, says the company. Bonjour is also said to be limited to direct links between nodes, whereas Fonemesh offers a more redundant network that can forward messages among nodes in typical mesh networking style.
According to Kow, Fonemesh has not yet decided whether to try a commercial launch on the OpenMoko, or just use it as a prototype platform and then launch on another platform. However, a product should be available in some form by the end of the year, he said. Sample source code for some applications will be made freely available, but Fonemesh has no plans to release core platform source code or establish an open source development environment. Instead, it hopes to make money licensing the development platform, as well as offering paid support. The company hopes to eventually go cross-platform on Symbian, Windows Mobile, and iPhone platforms, with an aim to provide a de facto mesh networking standard.
A location-aware complement to GPS?
Although most location-aware apps in the mobile industry, such as the many location apps targeted at the Google Android platform, leverage GPS technology, Kow said that there's also a place for mesh-networked WiFi in location applications.
“WiFi is more prevalent on mobile devices than GPS and other technologies, and unlike GPS, it works reliably inside buildings,” explained Cow, who added that the Fonemesh platform would support integrating the WiFi mesh network with location information based on GPS as well. “It could complement any loss of GPS signal,” he said. “Beyond that, we are looking at shopping malls, interactive billboards, anything that can embed WiFi. You could have medical devices that would automatically push out data to other devices, or smart robot toys that communicate with each other, or you could set up a mesh network among different devices in a car. There are so many possibilities.”
Future plans call for expanding the mesh networking support to Bluetooth, as well as using 3G cellular networks to bridge the WiFi mesh networks. “A 3G network could announce itself to the mesh network so it becomes a bridge and allows the network users to access the Internet,” said Kow.
Other Linux-compatible mesh networking products include Meraki's “Mini” mesh routers, Digi/MaxStream's XBee Series 2, which uses ZigBee, and Meshcom's MeshDriver WiFi drivers. Other sources for WiFi mesh stacks include LocustWorld, with its MeshAP and commercial MeshAP-Pro, and Wilibox, with its WiLi stack. One of the most notable end user products that provide mesh networking is One Laptop Per Child's (OLPC) XO netbook.
Fonemesh should be available on the OpenMoko Neo Freerunner later this year, says the company. More information may be available here.
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