Napster Founders Launch Airtime, Aim for PG Version of Chatroulette

Today former Napster founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning launched their video startup Airtime to the public at a star-studded event in New York City. The company, which has been shrouded in secrecy since early 2012, allows users to video chat with friends using their Facebook account, and is backed with a reported $33.5 million in funding to date from Accel Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and several individual investors.

A launch announcement outlined how Parker and Fanning decided to launch Airtime to “explore what’s possible when large numbers of people are brought together live, connecting through common interests and shared content.” The concept is reminiscent of video chat service Chatroulette, as well as platforms like tinychat, and more recently Google+ Hangouts. No download is required, and users sign in via Facebook and can then chat with friends in their browser (the platform supports Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer). Airtime also allows users to share content with their friends while video chatting, like a YouTube video, and allows users to remain anonymous until they want to reveal their identity. If a friend isn’t online, users can also leave video messages for them.

The tool lets users video chat with their Facebook friends, but also connects users with people outside their group of friends based on location and interests. Earlier this year Parker confirmed that Airtime would feature a random video chat function similar to Chatroulette, and today that was revealed as the Next button, which users can use to chat with strangers. Parker reiterated that Airtime is about tapping into an individual’s interest graph to find interesting people to chat with, rather than solely providing a means to chat with friends. “As we move from a social graph to an interest graph, there are great possibilities for our world,” Parker said in a release. “That’s what we’re trying to tap into with Airtime.” When users connect with a stranger, they’re shown what they have in common, from interests like their favourite band, to mutual friends, to shared locations.

When details started to emerge in February, it sounded like the tool would be similar to video chatting service Chatroulette, a company that both Parker and Fanning were involved with before launching this company (Fanning was an advisor, Parker was rumoured to be one). Chatroulette had a wealth of early buzz and usage, but it was plagued by x-rated content, and eventually fell largely out of public attention. In contrast to that network, Airtime is described as collaborative, fun, and safe, and is clearly trying to distance itself from the negative connotations Chatroulette brought to video chat. The company’s demo video shows chatters playing the guitar and juggling, but skeptics are no doubt wondering whether the entertainment on Airtime will all be G-rated. The platform does require a Facebook account to register, something that the website states is in order to “maintain a respectful community of users,” and AllThingsD reported that users will be kicked off the platform for inappropriate activity.

At least one Facebook employee left the social networking giant to join Airtime’s team. Airtime might be built on Facebook, but Facebook has its own video chat features, launched in partnership with Skype in July 2011. Video calling competitor Skype also has mobile apps, something Parker told AllThingsD is weeks away for Airtime. Another major player in the video space is Google, which launched its Hangouts feature on Google+. Hangouts lets users video chat in groups, something that Airtime doesn’t support as of yet, though users can conduct multiple one-on-one chats at one time.

Some have already questioned whether Airtime is getting attention because it’s an innovative platform, or whether it’s due to the star power of its two founders. Parker, formerly of Facebook, Plaxo and Napster, is now an investor in music service Spotify, and is also a partner at venture firm Founders Fund, though he is reportedly reducing his time to work on Airtime. After Napster shut down, Fanning launched companies including Snowcap and Rupture, and was recently involved with social network Path. With mainstream celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Jim Carrey in attendance at today’s launch event, nearly as much focus is falling on the Hollywood connection as on the tool itself.

But regardless of how much star power is behind the launch, it’s true that Parker has long been concerned with the problem of live video chat. At the Techonomy conference in August 2011 Parker said “no one has nailed live” when it comes to video, and he told Forbes his “pitch is eliminating loneliness.” With startups like Shelby.tv and Nowbox tackling social video curation for new platforms like the iPad, there is still room for new players in the one-to-one and one-to-many video chat space. While Parker and Fanning are looking to conquer live video, the founders are no doubt haunted by the lacklustre long-term performance of Chatroulette, and hoping that they can not only create a tool that users love, but one that doesn’t get mired in spam and offensive content.

Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin has covered startups and technology for over three years in publications including Sprouter Weekly, The Globe and Mail, Business Insider, Mashable, and VentureBeat. She also writes a regular startup column for the Financial Post, and is a technology expert on CTV News Channel. Before BetaKit Erin worked as Director of Content & Communications at Sprouter from its launch in 2009 until its acquisition by Postmedia Network Inc. She was recently named one of Marketing Magazine's 30 Under 30 in 2012.

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