When the ex-Napster duo Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning first launched Airtime in 2012, it was a one-on-one Chatroulette-style video app with some social functions. Suffice to say, that didn't work out too well, and the app was in limbo for several years. However, the company continued working on it, and Airtime is now officially back in beta as a group video app. The idea is to create a "room" where you and your friends can chat, Google Hangouts-style, or watch videos, share links and listen to music.
The friend-centric focus is quite a shift from the original app, where you were usually chatting with folks you don't know. Rather, Parker told Re/Code that with the casual room style, "we're just replicating something that happens all the time in real life." On the other hand, the company wanted to avoid the public livestreaming focus of apps like Periscope and Meerkat. "That's interesting, but it extends the hey, look at me broadcast model of older social system," according to the company's blog post in Medium.
Rather, the company says it's focused on "co-consumption," letting you and your friends look at photos, livestreams, YouTube videos, and events like presidential debates together privately. "Recreating that lost pleasure of sitting on the sofa and watching TV with friends was magical."
He added that it took them a long time to come around to the group concept because of the technical challenges. "We weren't flailing. The technology was incredibly difficult to execute," he says. However, the company is confident about it now, saying "we believe it's better than any existing solutions like Google's or Skype's."
I tested Airtime's beta app by holding a three person chat with my colleagues Dan Cooper and Matt Brian. The signup process was pretty intrusive, as it immediately demands your phone number and forces you to give it access to your contacts before you can do anything. Once I figured how to create a room and invite everybody in, we were able to hold a high-quality video chat without too many problems, though Dan (who had internet problems) found the quality was choppy. If you want to call folks back to the room later, you can "signal" them, but it even notified my colleagues when I went back into a room. "Too much nagging," says one of them.
We briefly tested the concept of group watching with a YouTube video, and that worked fine too. The interface could still use some cleanup, because if you have a text and video chat, plus a YouTube or other video, things get cluttered up. Nevertheless, it's easy to see the potential for hanging out and even collaborating online while watching content together. Whether it'll get traction or join the graveyard of hyped-up apps remains to be seen, but it's now available to try on Android or iOS.