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Sean Parker's Airtime not ready for prime time

Napster founders Parker and Shawn Fanning unveil a Web video chat service designed to take up where Chatroulette left off. The launch is long on glitter, but the tech demo was far too buggy.

Napster founders Sean Parker (left) and Shawn Fanning debuted video-chat service Airtime today and nothing at the launch went right. But don't count them out.

NEW YORK--To launch his new start-up, Sean Parker should have spent less of his billions on celebrity guests and more of it on fixing his technology.

Parker and Shawn Fanning, his ol' partner from the Napster days, today unveiled Airtime, a Web video chat service designed to take up where Chatroulette left off. The launch event was a glitch-filled disaster -- or a marketing coup by Parker.

As he addressed a crowd of journalists and celebrities, Parker's attempt to demonstrate the service was foiled at every turn. Numerous attempts to connect with celebrities via the Web service failed. Not even the microphones worked at some points. But standing by to be witty and save Airtime were a long list of Hollywood actors, musicians, and comedians, including Jim Carrey, Alicia Keys, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Joel McHale.

I couldn't tell if we were being put on. Regardless, it was fun. Carrey had the best line of the day when he asked Parker via Airtime: "Where do I click to download destroy the music industry."

Not only was that line comical but it was also poignant. Parker and Fanning gave the world Napster in 2000, the granddaddy of file sharing. The service wrenched the music industry into a completely new shape. The pair said today that they sort of stumbled on their history-making music service and didn't know what they had done until the lawsuits started rolling in.

Because of the success they had there and in the years since, it would be hard to write this duo off, even with a buggy launch for Airtime.

Still, it's tempting to dismiss the service. Here's what I mean: As near as I can tell, Airtime isn't very different from Chatroulette, the service founded by teenage Russian entrepreneur Andrey Ternovskiy. After a massive spike in interest in 2010, Chatroulette just as quickly fell out of favor.

At Chatroulette wasn't the first or last video chat play. There have been lots of them, and none has caught on for any length of time. Cool technology or not, the demand for this kind of service has yet to emerge.

Screen shot of Airtime. Airtime

The problem with Chatroulette, which allowed users to chat with strangers from across the globe and quickly hop from one video conversation to the next, has been blamed on male genitalia, and the frequency with which some Chatroulette users displayed theirs over the video service.

Parker joked that among Airtime's top four principles is safety. No. 5? You guessed it, "safety." The secret sauce to defeating the flashers is Facebook, Parker said.

Because Airtime is built on top of a social network like Facebook, there is accountability, Parker told the audience: "The system knows who you are."

In Airtime's terms of service is this information about what managers consider inappropriate behavior on the site:

• Nudity or partial nudity
• Obscene or vulgar behavior
• Sexually suggestive behavior
• Violence
• Animal cruelty
• Drug use

The list goes on.

As for demand, Parker said the time is right for a video-chat service. He cited some interesting figures for the doubters to chew on. More than 800 million Webcams will ship in 2012.

He added that Airtime is pigging backing on Facebook a service with 950 million users, who generate 3 billion new likes every day. Those close ties to Facebook may be why there are unconfirmed reports that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was seen trying out the service.

Perhaps the best way to project what Airtime may do is by looking at the records of the two founders. The companies that one or the other helped start or has been closely tied to include Facebook, Plaxo, Spotify, Snocap, Rupture and Path. Not all of them were billion dollar companies but they typically featured unique technology and made their presence felt.

Case in point, my colleague Rafe Needleman has given the service a thumbs up in his review, which you can get here.

Correction 6:38 p.m. PT: This story incorrectly stated the number of Facebook users. The correct figure is 950 million.