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Sean Parker's group chat app Airtime relaunches on iOS and Android

Sean Parker's group chat app Airtime relaunches on iOS and Android

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Airtime, the group video-chatting service started in 2011 by Napster co-founder Sean Parker, is relaunching today as a free iOS and Android app. The app lets you create a room, invite others to join it, and then drop in any kind of media you like to experience it collectively with the group. After its short-lived existence as a website, Airtime is now putting its focus on competing with messaging products like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, as well as the video-chat incumbents Skype and Google Hangouts.

Through integrations with YouTube, Spotify, and a slew of other services, you can drop in text, video, music, and photos and get the attention of group members by sending out what's called a signal to the group. Up to six people can video chat and post at once, but as many as 250 people can monitor what's happening in any given room. It's a weird blend of the live streaming aspects of Periscope and Facebook Live Video with the group chat and video calling functions of standard messaging services. It also resembles Facebook's aptly named Rooms app, the experimental forum product the company released in 2014 and then shuttered a year later.

Airtime lets people watch videos, view photos, and video chat together

The vision for Airtime predates all of those other services. Nearly five years ago, Parker and fellow Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning imagined a service that could replicate in the digital world the feeling of experiencing something in a physical space with your friends. Parker, who after Napster played a pivotal early role at Facebook as its first president, is critical of that social network and others made in its shadow. He and the Airtime team think those apps only facilitate broadcasting from one to many, which they see as an alienating way to communicate with friends.

"We’re living in the world where we have more friends than ever, but I often don’t feel that connected to any of them through these products," says Parker, who runs the startup as executive chairman alongside president Daniel Klaus. "It’s a like factory." Airtime, on the other hand, is about "restoring a sense of intimacy," he adds.

It's an appealing vision, to be sure, but it didn't catch on when Airtime first launched. The website went live in June 2012 with much fanfare given Parker's standing in Silicon Valley and the startup's $33 million in funding. However, it worked much more like a Chatroulette clone linked to your Facebook account. Just months after its lunch, the site had little traction with users and talent drain left Airtime struggling.

Parker and Klaus say the idea was too technically ambitious for its time. For one, it was a website and not a mobile app. Even if it did launch on the App Store, smartphones were only just reaching critical mass and high-speed data connections weren't as ubiquitous. Apps like Instagram and Snapchat had only just launched, and both focused solely on image sharing at the time.

Parker began salvaging the operation and planning a relaunch. After hiring Klaus in 2013, Airtime began releasing apps under different names in markets all around the world. One such app, OkHello, got noticed for its similarities to Airtime, but it was ultimately just a way to test whether smartphones could perform features like multi-person video chatting. "Somehow that thing managed to get 4.5 million users before we shut it down," Parker says.

Airtime experimented by releasing other apps like OkHello

After years of iteration, the team figured out how to make a robust video-chatting platform that could also handle links, photos, and videos from elsewhere on the web. Thomas Purnell-Fisher, who joined Airtime last year as chief product officer, says he hopes the app can offer the best of every big social platform out there. "One of the most consistently said things by people around the world is, 'Oh, I can do all the things in one place,'" he says of Airtime. In that sense, the app is trying to cut down on all the various ways we communicate with friends by giving us a one-stop-shop to do it all.

Ultimately, Parker and Klaus imagine a desktop version of the app, and even one for televisions, too. Airtime isn't too worried about monetizing the service. "There are so many opportunities to do subscription-based content," Parker says. "The sky’s the limit once the product is ubiquitously deployed." Klaus floated ideas like shared viewing experiences for sports games or Game of Thrones, and Parker said there's interesting gaming applications Airtime would be a good fit for.

Airtime will undoubtedly face skepticism, both for its grand vision to compete with products from the world's biggest social networks and because of its rocky past. But Parker thinks the app is striking the right emotional note at a time when Facebook and Twitter are focusing on helping people broadcast mostly to strangers. "It [Airtime] is the only product that let’s groups of people collaboratively experience the same content at the same time," he says. "A shared experience — it’s so much more rewarding."

Yet for as fully featured as Airtime is, the app will need users to help it take off. After all, a room is only as interesting as its occupants.