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Napster co-founders launch new web chat service

Looking to shake up the online consumer market once again, Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning unveiled their latest project in New York this week, a new Web-based chat service called “Airtime.”

As a much-anticipated Silicon Valley start-up, Airtime matches people with common interests and social connections in video chat sessions. It works within Facebook and has been in development for more than a year.

Similar to Chatroulette, a similar video chatting service, the app appears with two screens to accommodate the user and a friend. The users can share videos and files or just talk. The service features green-shaded boxes beneath each participant, highlighting common interests. Friends can award one another with “applause meter” points.

“There’s no serendipity,” Parker said. “Everything now is filtered through the social graph. We have the ability to share media faster than ever before. But the social network is somewhat constraining. It is become an increasingly public forum. You’re doing everything in front of your friends and that’s limiting.”

Parker said he wants to help people forge new relationships and break out of the social graph. Airtime, he said, is designed to foster spontaneous sharing and interaction with video. There’s no download or registration required.

Though similar to Chatroulette, Parker said the applications differ because AirTime is safer for its users. Chatroulette, which has diminished in popularity, had a problem with online flashers, which Parker said would be eliminated because AirTime is built on top of Facebook. Accountability is essential, he said. “The system knows who you are.”

Parker and Fanning launched Airtime at a press conference featuring Jimmy Fallon, Julia Louis-Drefus, Jim Carrey and Snoop Dogg in New York City. However, the presentation was buggy and there were problems connecting to people using the system. Louis-Dreyfus and Carrey were to help demo the service but the glitches prevented them from doing so. They distracted the audience while technicians tried to fix the problems.

Eventually, the Airtime people gave up on trying to demonstrate the product and they just played a video demo.

USA Today reported that Airtime builds on YouTube and Skype. Media analyst Rich Greenfield, who was briefed on the product, told the newspaper that Airtime is on a collision course with Skype.

“It’s Skype without software,” said Greenfield. “You see your (Facebook) friends online and click chat, just like you do with IM. There’s no waiting or connection lags.”