twhirling with Loic

Back in the distant summer of 2003, I got sold the dream of real-time online video by Keith Teare, the co-founder of EasyNet and one of Britain’s most swashbuckling entrepreneurial exports to Silicon Valley. Keith had just taken over as CEO of VidiTel, a start-up company funded by venture capitalists Draper-Fisher that had developed a technology platform that enabled anyone with a webcam to have online video conversations. He wanted me to become the general manager of the service.  Real-time video is the future, he promised me, it’s going to change everything.

Keith was right. Real-time video was the future in 2003. The big question now is whether it still remains in the future in 2009.

In new media, of course, timing is everything.  Draper-Fisher invested in VidiTel at about the same time it invested in another real-time communications platform, the Internet telephony company Skype, which was later sold to EBay in October 2005 for $2.6 billion. VidiTel, in contrast, never caught on and Keith is now President of the photography start-up fotonauts while I’ve degenerated into an impecunious snark.

I have to admit that VidiTel crossed my mind more than once while talking yesterday to Loic Le Meur, the swashbuckling Gallic founder and CEO of Seesmic, a Silicon Valley start-up he described to me as a “real-time video platform”. To be fair to Le Meur, however, real-time video has come an awful long way since 2003, his start-up having pioneered technology that makes it incredibly easy to record and distribute personal videos over the Internet. Seesmic could indeed change everything on the Internet. Loic’s tiny company of eleven engineers might even have the potential to transform Twitter from a textual to a video social application.

Financed by $12 million of investment from blue chip angels like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Techcrunch heavyweight Michael Arrington, Seesmic has already built up an impressive list of media partners including the BBC, the Washington Post company, 20th Century Fox and LinkTV. Most intriguingly, Loic, who moved to Silicon Valley from Paris eighteen months ago to build Seesmic, acquired a desktop client software product called twhirl in April of last year. twhirl plus Seesmic might equal fame and fortune for Loic. What twhirl does is enable the Seesmic software to work on Twitter, thus enabling video on the micro-blogging platform. ”It's Youtube meets Twitter” as one twhirl enthusiast tweeted me late last night.

While twhirl is far from being the only desktop client for Twitter (there are now at least 30 clients and 200 applications -- and I personally use Tweetdeck as much as twhirl) it is definitely one of the most user friendly and reliable – both for its general functionality and its rich media applications. According to Twitter's API numbers, 6% of all Tweets are now sent using twhirl, with the free client having been downloaded more than a million times. I strongly advise Twitter users to twhirl. It really does enrich and simplify the Twitter experience.

Loic promised me that real-time video is the future of the Internet. Timing is indeed everything in the new media business. Almost six years after Keith Teare sold me on the same dream, I suspect that we might have finally caught up with the future.