As promised last month, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning's Airtime has gone live, with the tagline "Create shared experiences with the people you know, and the people you want to know." The social video chat service from Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker is officially on the air, launching at a New York press conference with Jim Carrey, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Ed Helms, Joe McHale, Jimmy Fallon, Olivia Munn, Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg in attendance.
“When did the Internet become so boring?” Parker asked the press conference crowd more than once. That's why the free browser-based Skype/Google+ hangout/Facebook chat alternative aims to liven up Facebook and the Internet, as an app on Facebook with a glossy skin that includes a video chat window, an aggregated list of friends, friends of friends, and people in your hood who might want to chat. (Of course, how many people are interested in or available for video chats on short notice?)
It selects topics from Facebook data, puts them into a tag cloud which when clicked on, gives instant Airtime with a like-minded user. Basic technical requirements are a webcam-equipped computer with a 1.5Ghz processor, 512MB RAM, 1.5Mbps bandwidth.
“There’s something exciting about bringing spontaneity to the Internet,” said Parker. “All of your interactions online are constrained by the people you already know. That wasn’t always the case. If it weren’t for the internet, Fanning and I would have never become friends. As we move from a social graph to an interest graph, there are great possibilities for our world. That’s what we’re trying to tap into with Airtime.”
The debut wasn't exactly smooth. "Glitch after glitch marred Airtime's first public showing, leaving the event's collection of celebrities riffing and improvising onstage while engineers tried to fix the bugs and revive dropped connections," wrote CNN Money’s Laurie Segall. (Hey, Parker did promise to make things less boring.)
Mashable editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff quipped on Twitter from the NYC launch, "Airtime has been about 80% fail, but, hey, Jim Carrey is here. So it's all good."
CNET’s Greg Sandoval grumbled, "To launch his new start-up, Sean Parker should have spent less of his billions on celebrity guests and more of it on fixing his technology," and added, "Cool technology or not, the demand for this kind of service has yet to emerge."
Comparisons to the short-lived but highly buzzed-about Chatroulette abound. “Summary: Airtime is chatroulette, built on Facebook and with fewer penises,” tweeted Baratunde.
The Verge also commented, “Ultimately, Airtime is a lot like Chatroulette, except it's more organized, Facebook-integrated, and invented by tech celebrity Sean Parker. And in the end, it will be more useful than Chatroulette because it will likely stay reasonably free of penises. Or is that the fun of Chatroulette — that you never know what's coming?”
Reassuring potential users concerned about any unexpected surprises, Airtime says it will keep a lid on digital flashers through facial recognition technology, site monitors, and user policing. "Parker and Fanning argue that they are helping bring serendipity into a world where people's online social graphs are set. Airtime is a 'social discovery' application for helping people make new friends online, not necessarily for the purpose of dating," writes All Things D’s Liz Gannes.
TechCrunch’s Josh Constine is a fan and believes it will "re-humanize the Internet." "One minute into using Airtime I was laughing with someone I'd never met. That's something special when despite all the asynchronous connection, the Internet threatens to make us feel lonely."
“The service seems like a nice compromise between the chat room-filled Wild West days of the early web and today’s strictly controlled social worlds of Facebook and Google," observed Time.com's reporter. "I’m just not sure there are a ton of people looking for something like Airtime. Chatroulette’s appeal was its mix of danger and novelty; if we wanted something safe and easy-to-use, we’d just sign in to Skype or Google+ Hangouts. Is anyone looking to split the difference?”
The company now has close to $25 million in funding from investors including Founders Fund, Accel Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Yuri Milner, Scott Braun, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington and celeb high-tech investors Ashton Kutcher and will.i.am. A premium version, ads and virtual goods will all be coming, adding significant revenue opportunities. But much will depend on the adoption by users, of course.
One thing we will say — it's got great graphics. So long as it doesn't get too graphic for the average user, especially with Facebook looking to let the under-13 set in, it may stand a chance.