June 5, 2012 — -- 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.
The first thing you notice is the list of cross-referenced interests. The service matches the Facebook interests or "Likes" of both callers. For instance, Sean and the Airtime employee both are interested in Airtime. Go figure!
Below that is a list of videos, which Sean has recently shared on Facebook. As soon as he clicks one of them -- one of the EHarmony Loves Cats Song -- it begins playing in his video box. While the video plays, you can still see the other's video feed and their reaction to the video (which happens to be hilarious). You can add any YouTube video link and watch it right in the player, right alongside whomever you are chatting with.
But Airtime is more than just an advanced web-based video chatting service. It's a video-based extension of Facebook and it encourages spontaneous video interaction and meeting new people. While comparisons will be made to Chatroulette, the controversial website that pairs strangers for webcam conversations, Airtime lets you specify if you're willing to speak to people with whom you aren't directly friends. It also taps right into Facebook, so people aren't entirely anonymous.
You can then click a "Next" button when you're done with a call and be matched with a friend of a friend who shares some of the same Facebook interests as you. "Natural experiences is what we are interested in," Fanning says. "It's weird how impersonal the Internet has become."
But, of course, that's where Airtime takes the biggest risk. Yet Parker and Fanning are ready to talk safety and privacy. "Safety is beyond important to us. We have a huge team for manually monitoring," Parker explains. Additionally, they have built special software tools which will look for the absence of a face or, more simply, monitor for nudity. "Within in seconds we will be able to capture and remove the user," he says. Additionally, since Airtime requires you to share your identity via Facebook, the two expect there to be less profanity and abuse. There is also an "applause" button, which will increase people's status levels and encourages good behavior.
Parker and Fanning finally open up that laptop to the rest of the world this morning. At a swanky launch event in New York City, with celebrities like Snoop Dog and Martha Stewart, Airtime is launching for all to use. By the end of the day, everyone will be able to log in with their Facebook account on any computer that has a browser. However, because the video relies on Flash it won't work on the iPad or iPhone; apps for those platforms and others will come soon. The service is free, but the founders plan to monetize it with advertising and perhaps a virtual goods model.
Competitors are already pointing to those shortcomings of the service. "Airtime will offer a matching-like service driving people to meet like-minded people outside their social graph," ooVoo CEO, Yuval Baharav, said. "Their communication will be based on one-on-one video, which is a must in today's age. ooVoo is the exact opposite: it is about high-quality group video chat with your friends across all social media and across all devices."
Parker remarks near the end of the conversation that he and Fanning are well aware that Airtime isn't the first video chatting service to have some social features, but says that sometimes it's the last to market that wins. He adds, "Facebook wasn't the first social network."