Hands-on: Airtime won me over

It's not the concept, it's the execution that makes this Skype competitor work.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read
CNET News.com editors chat with Lee Jacobs of Colingo. Nice matchmaking, Airtime. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

I was prepared to hate Airtime, the new video chat service that connects you to both friends and strangers. The last thing I need in my life is random, time-consuming video chats with distant friends of friends. And for connecting with people I already know, I have instant messaging, Skype, and the phone.

But the moment I fired up Airtime for the first time, an old friend called me and blew me a kiss. Made my morning. Then, a few minutes later, when I pressed the random "Talk to Someone" button , I got connected to Lee Jacobs of the startup Colingo, in Brazil. Airtime told us we were connected through Dave McClure of 500 Startups. Lee took the opportunity to pitch me (good pitch) and we had a nice conversation.

Chatroulette this isn't. Airtime is two things: First, a video-calling service that lets you connect directly to your Facebook friends. But Skype also lets you connect with friends using video, and for that matter so does Facebook itself. That's table stakes.

It's the semi-random, not-quite-Chatroulette second thing that might make Airtime sticky. When you want to talk to someone, Airtime matches you over shared friends or Facebook Likes. You can prune and edit the list of Likes that Airtime picks up from Facebook, which is probably a good idea. If you do, you'll (hopefully) only be connected to people with whom you will find a lot to talk about.

Or you can get more specific: you can connect only to people nearby, or turn off friends of friends. Or you can pick an interest from your list and find just people who are also interested in that. Regardless, the system shows you what and who you have in common. It's a great ice-breaker.

Airtime also lets you share videos you're watching. Again, not a new idea, but Airtime does make it super easy.

At this early stage, despite limitations, Airtime is surprisingly compelling. And it's not the concept that wins you over. People have tried variations on what Airtime is doing before. It's the execution. It's simple, fast, and it seems to do a good job of matching you to people who won't waste your time.

Now, the downsides: It's browser-only, and requires Flash, so forget about Airtiming from your iPad. You also have to leave it running in a browser Window (there's no little alerting app) to get incoming messages, and the Flash video player is processor-intensive, so you might not want to run it when on batteries or if you are distracted by your computer's fan spinning for all its worth. And for now, Airtime is person-to-person only, too. No group chats. If you want that, go over to Google+ Hangouts.

But Airtime could take share from Skype and Facebook chat (including the Facebook/Skype integration) because setup is so easy and the experience is so clean.

As a grownup with not a lot of extra time for chit-chat, I doubt I will use the matching feature much, but I do think this also has potential, since you can easily find people to talk with about a particular interest, and since Airtime shows you how you are socially connected when it finds someone for you. That will make people more likely to stick in conversations.

The big question, for us early adopters, is this: Will Airtime still be good six months from now, when there are many more people on it? Will it get overrun? Or, possibly worse, will it feel like Google+: A great experience, but not in broad use enough to be central to our online social lives? We'll have to see about that. It will do better than Chatroulette, though. That's a sure bet.