Airtime: Napster Founders Reunite to Launch Video Chat Service That Links to Facebook

PHOTO: Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning
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It's been thirty minutes since Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning have started talking to me about Airtime, their upcoming video chat site which links to Facebook. Yet the laptop is still closed. I'm one of the first journalists to whom they are showing the product, and the two are nervous.

Not exactly what you'd expect from the two tech titans who met at in their teens, launched Napster in 1999, and then took on the record labels in federal court. It's certainly not what you'd expect from Parker, who is worth more than a billion dollars since Facebook went public because of his early involvement with the company. (You've seen the dramatized story in the movie.)

But Parker and Fanning are rightfully nervous. They've been building Airtime for two years, raised more than $33 million in venture capital, and they're about to take on a fairly established industry of video chatting. But they're doing it, as you might expect, with a very big twist. Oh, and with a whole lot of passion.

"There is one social graph," Parker tells me. "We are all members of it. It's called real life."

And that's exactly what Parker and Fanning are looking to bring to the Internet today. The real life interaction, the real life responses to the things we see on the Internet and share with people: that's something that can only be done with video.

"Right now everything in the social space is asynchronous," Parker says. He explains that people either use instant messaging or Facebook or Twitter where the text-based responses aren't instantaneous. "Why isn't more happening live on the Internet?" he asks.

"There is a need for a physical presence and connection on the Internet. It's absolutely critical," Fanning says.

Airtime fills those gaps, they tell me, and the webcam is the answer. There are over 800 million webcams shipping this year, but the two say they feel that none of the current video chatting solutions, including Skype, Facetime, Google's Hangouts, and even Facebook, have got it right.

Services like Skype and Facetime require you to download software onto your computer. It also requires that you log in to a separate account. And discovering people or friends with likeminded interests on those services isn't encouraged. Airtime takes on each of those issues: it is browser-based, you can only sign in with your Facebook account, and it's built around chatting not only with your friends but friends of friends with whom you share common interests.

"Your friends are all on Facebook and it's open," Parker says. Only one social network can rival the real life social network that Parker describes, and that's Facebook.

Finally, Parker decides it's time. He opens up his HP Envy 15 laptop (he has a MacBook Pro as well, he tells me) and he launches www.airtime.com. The service is based entirely in the browser and takes up the entire width of the screen. Parker is logged into his Facebook account and a long list of friends appears on the right side of the very cleanly designed site. If the site were live at the time of the demo, he would have been able to tap any of the friends and call them right on Airtime; they wouldn't have had to download anything to start a call.

Sean decides to call a designer who works at Airtime's offices in San Francisco. Two boxes appear next to each other, taking up the entire screen of the browser. On the left side of the screen is a box with Sean and Shawn's faces and on the right appears the young Airtime designer. It appears to be just like a regular video chatting service, except in a web browser, until a number of things appear below the boxes.

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