When Americans first started exploring the online world en masse in the early 1990s, many of them headed for AOL’s chat rooms to connect with other curious strangers.But since then, the appeal of random online encounters has faded with the rise of sites like Facebook, where most people tend to interact with people they already know. Now a few services are trying to recreate the spontaneity of that earlier era, adding a modern twist: live video chats. The latest of these, Airtime, made its debut on Tuesday. It garnered some extra attention because its founders, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, who were behind the Napster music-sharing service, are well-known figures in the tech world.
At a celebrity-laden press event in downtown Manhattan, Mr. Parker lauded the advantages of video chat, saying it brought a human touch to Internet-based communication. He noted that it had gained momentum in recent years because of the proliferation of smartphones and computers with built-in cameras, paired with high-speed home and mobile broadband connections.
A study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that nearly 40 percent of teenagers who used the Internet participated in video chats.Mr. Parker took a swipe at the Microsoft-owned audio and video chat service Skype, describing it as “archaic technology.” But Skype has grown tremendously in the last year. It is used for work-related chats, but is also used by people in long-distance relationships and parents eager to show off a new baby to faraway relatives. Skype says the number of calling minutes on the service leapt 40 percent to 100 billion in the first three months of this year from the year-earlier period, and approximately half of those included video.
Apple has its own video calling service, FaceTime, and Google added a chat tool called Hangouts to its Google Plus social network. Airtime also faces social-minded start-up competitors like TinyChat, ooVoo and Ustream.But analysts say that while video-chat services may be picking up in popularity, they may never be quite as mainstream as other methods of communication, like texting, e-mailing or sending instant messages.“Some people are still leery of the whole video experience,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner who follows the consumer Web. “There are still a number of social inhibitors to video chat that have nothing to do with technology. People worry whether their hair is looking good and if they have to get dressed before taking a call.”
Mr. Gartenberg also noted that video chat was often not as technically fluid as other means of communication. People need a speedy Internet connection to avoid annoying hiccups and freezes. And multitasking while chatting is harder to pull off.“People talk on the phone and text from all sorts of places that they couldn’t do a video chat,” he said. “You have to give it your full attention.”Some companies have struggled to gain a footing in the video chat market. SocialEyes, which like Airtime hooked into Facebook and was led by Rob Glaser, who founded RealNetworks, fumbled for a year before turning itself into a less ambitious mobile application.
But the creators of Airtime are convinced that the service’s social features will be the ticket to its long-term success. Airtime lets people use webcams to connect with their Facebook friends or strangers. They can search for new chat partners based on their interests, shared social connections and location. Once connected, they can talk or even watch YouTube videos together.Mr. Parker, who was the founding president of Facebook and was instrumental in helping Mark Zuckerberg expand that site, said social networks like Facebook could actually discourage a user from connecting with new people. He described the current repertory of social Web experiences as “boring.”“We’re trying to restore surprise and serendipity to the Internet,” he said in an interview at his Manhattan town house on Sunday. “It was definitely there in the early days, but it has disappeared.”