It's hard to look at Airtime, the video-chat service founded by Napster bad boys Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, and not think of Chatroulette – a forerunner that was beloved by nude exhibitionists and therefore abandoned by nearly everybody else. Much of the discussion around the unveiling of Airtime today refers to Chatroulette. But Airtime reminds me of a much earlier, deeply influential startup.
Mirabilis was an Israeli company founded in 1996 that developed ICQ, the first popular instant-messaging program. AOL bought Mirabilis for $400 million in 1998, and ICQ became the backbone of AOL Instant Messenger, which in turn became a killer app that made AOL indispensable for many subscribers long after they had outgrown the rest of the online service. Instant messaging had been around for years, but ICQ's simple, elegant and useful design gave it mass appeal.
A lot will need to happen before Airtime becomes just as influential, but it appears to have many features that could be alluring to hundreds of millions of people: It fits neatly into Facebook's social graph. It connects anyone with a webcam and a Facebook account to their online friends, or to strangers who share a love for the same band or film. It allows two people to watch and discuss a YouTube video. All of this has been possible on the Web for some time, but Airtime aims to make it much easier.
Parker and Fanning want to cast Airtime as more than another video-chat service, so they're calling it a “live video network.” But the thing that may really set Airtime apart is how tightly integrated it is in the Facebook platform. Skype has been somewhat integrated into Facebook with so-so results. But Airtime seems engineered to be easily embedded into the DNA of Facebook's design. And if it is, Airtime could become to Facebook what ICQ was to AOL a dozen years ago.
Video chat has not yet become a central feature for Facebook users in the way chat and photos have. But Airtime could change that. TechCrunch notes that it will add new features such as group chat and synchronous music listening. Unlike Google+ Hangouts, which required people to create an account and build an additional list of friends, Airtime will be available to anyone who is logged in to Facebook.
Mobile apps for Airtime are also in the works, adding to the growing list of apps that were created by, bought by or closely affiliated with Facebook: Instagram, Spotify, Facebook Camera and, if rumors prove true, the Opera browser and Face.com's KLIK. If Facebook is able to integrate all these apps into a unified mobile platform, it will have a mobile presence that rivals anything Google has created.
Airtime could be a cornerstone of Facebook's planning for the mobile Web. If its members start using video chat to connect with friends, both old and new, there will be much less appetite for other video-chat apps such as Skype and Apple's FaceTime. And it would lock its users more tightly into the Facebook social graph.
Of course, a lot needs to happen before Airtime can be declared a success. Google+ Hangouts garnered more than its share of acclaim before the enthusiasm waned. If the interface isn't intuitive enough to appeal to most Facebook users, or if many simply aren't interested in video chat, Airtime could turn into just another interesting experiment. And then there's the question of how Airtime - or Facebook, for that matter - stands to make money from all of this.
But on first look, Airtime looks like a company that could shake up the world of video-chat and make it a bigger part of Facebook users' everyday lives. If that's the case, the biggest winner would be Facebook. The company needs something big to get its mojo back.