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Sean Parker is bringing his failed video chat startup back from the dead

Don't call it a comeback.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Don’t call it a comeback.

Nearly four years after originally launching his video chat service Airtime at one of the most hyped and star-studded tech events in history, Sean Parker is bringing Airtime back from the dead.

Parker, the Napster co-founder and early Facebook exec, launched a new app with an old name on Thursday, a group messaging and video app that’s meant to help people do things together online that they might usually do together in real life, like listen to music or watch YouTube videos.

Parker refers to this group dynamic as “many-to-many communication,” not one-to-many communication you get on places like Facebook or Twitter. The idea is for people to create rooms around specific topics or friend groups, and then jump in and out of those rooms throughout the day to chat, share links and video chat.

If multiple users are in the room at the same time, you can do things like watch YouTube videos or flip through photos while simultaneously video chatting. Airtime has partnerships with company’s like Vevo and Vimeo and Spotify (where Parker is on the board).

“Our product is not for strangers,” Parker said. “We’re just replicating something that happens all the time in real life.”


The new app is a modern-day version of the original Airtime, a video chat service Parker launched back in 2012. Part of the appeal back then was that you could chat with a total stranger, chat roulette-style, but the Web-only service never took off despite a launch event that included attendees like Snoop Dogg, Jim Carrey and Martha Stewart.

The new Airtime had a much more subdued unveiling — a small, private demo in a 9th-floor suite at the Ritz Carlton hotel in San Francisco. Parker, who was joined by Airtime President Daniel Klaus and product boss Thomas Purnell-Fisher, hammered home two key points throughout the demonstration: Airtime was different from anything you’ll find in the social media sphere today, and the technology that lets groups of people jump in and out of video chats while simultaneously watching videos on their phones was really hard to build.

In fact, Airtime quietly built and launched more than six apps since its original messaging service, testing different features of what ultimately became the new Airtime. One of those apps, OkHello, garnered some media attention back in early 2014, but Parker says that was never intended to be Airtime 2.0.

“The reason why this has taken us so long is not because we didn’t know what we were doing,” Parker said, mentioning the challenges of letting multiple users join an ongoing video chat from all different connectivity environments. “We weren’t flailing. The technology was incredibly difficult to execute.”

Airtime lands at an interesting time, when live video and mobile video are all the rage. Facebook and Twitter-owned Periscope are trying to figure out live broadcasting, the one-to-many communication method Parker mentioned earlier.

Meerkat, another livestreaming darling, has already determined that model doesn’t work. (It’s actually pivoting to something that sounds a lot like Airtime.)

Parker seems to agree that live broadcasting isn’t the best strategy, although he doesn’t say it straight out.

“Somehow along the way those platforms became less personal, less intimate, and it became impossible to have this sense of real-time togetherness,” Parker said. “There’s something lost both in terms of the curation of a small group and the sense of privacy and the sense of being able to publish to a subset of your friends, not the whole world.”

Added Klaus: “[Airtime] makes other social platforms feel so flat.”

Confidence! Now it’s time to see whether Airtime, which has a slew of well-known investors like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Andreessen Horowitz, will become a totally new Skype-meets-Facebook or another, um, Airtime.

The app is available for free on both iOS and Android beginning Thursday. (The Android version is still in beta, Parker says, which means it doesn’t yet have all the same features as the iOS version.)

Hello world from Airtime on Vimeo.

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