By Erick Schonfeld
This morning, New York City-based chat company Paltalk is releasing a version of its multi-person video chat service on the Web in beta. Called Paltalk Express, it is a Flash version of the company's download client. While the front end is Flash/Flex, the back end is built on Paltalk's proprietary technology, which allows up to thousands of people to participate in a video chat session at the same time. The company will be releasing embeddable widgets in the coming weeks, putting it in competition with Meebo, Tokbox, Userplane, and others.
When you launch Paltalk Express, you choose from any of several thousand "rooms" where chats are occurring. Each room can have just a handful of people, or more than 5,000. A chat the company hosted with William Shatner had 8,000 people in it. You can chat only via text, or if you have a Webcam set up, you can make your video stream available. A video camera icon indicates whether video is available for each participant. To see the video for a particular person, you select that person and drag them to a strip at the top of the screen. Anyone can add text chat, but to talk to everyone via video, you "raise your hand" and the moderator of the room hands you the "mic."
Paltalk's download client, which works only on PCs, already boasts 4 million active users a month (active being defined as someone who has logged on in the past 90 days), and hundreds of thousands of those pay an annual or monthly subscription fee ($60 a year or $15 a month). Only subscribers can see other people's videos. Paltalk has a very active community, with 50,000 to 60,000 people online concurrently in 4,000 or 5,000 rooms at any given time. While this freemium model has worked well for the company so far, it remains to be seen whether people are willing to pay for video chat on the Web--even if it is massive multiperson video chat. If you don't need to see hundreds of other people in your video chat, other completely free options exist, including Tokbox (for up to six people, and integrated into Meebo), Userplane, and SeeToo (for two people). Also, if you want to text chat with multiple other people while everyone is watching the same video or other piece of online content, there is Meebo Rooms, which has a similar feel to the Paltalk rooms.