Houseparty brings its group video chat app to Mac

Houseparty, the group video chat app that’s popular among a set of teenagers and college students, is getting a desktop app companion. Today, the company released Houseparty for Mac, a simple group video chap designed to enable faster video chats among close friends and family. It represents a bid for the company to extend its reach beyond the adolescent hangouts for which it is known into college dorms, study halls, houses, and workplaces.

Houseparty is now available as a free download in the Mac App Store, and it resembles other group video chats in many respects. Where it differs is in its concept of “presence.” It asks you to signal when you’re available to chat, and then it notifies your friends that you’re “in the house.”

On the phone, opening Houseparty sends a notification to your friends that you’re available. If your friends are already online, you can join them with a single tap.

It’s less intrusive than a phone call out of the blue, and the concept helped Houseparty obtain 20 million users. The average user has 23 friends and spends 51 minutes a day in the app, the company says. Facebook built a clone of the app called Bonfire and it’s now testing it internationally.

The Mac app, which sits in your menu bar, introduces a new concept to the app that the company calls “around.” Users in the “around” state are at their laptops and available for chatting, but their cameras are turned off, and friends are notified of their status only when they first sign in to the app. Still, knowing someone is around could encourage more casual conversations with friends, CEO Ben Rubin told me.

Houseparty for Mac shows you a list of your friends resembling an old AOL Instant Messenger buddy list. You can tap a “wave” button to say hello or tap a phone icon to start a video chat. You can also add other friends to your chat or join an existing one. A number next to the app’s icon indicates how many of your friends are “around,” and the icon turns red when friends are actively chatting.

The chats are no-frills experiences. Houseparty’s video bubbles are quite small by default, and while they can be expanded to a more traditional size, you can’t yet resize the windows or go full screen. I had some audio problems during the beta test, which the company says it is working to resolve. Otherwise, chats load quickly and feel lightweight. It’s easy to imagine students doing homework together in a Houseparty chat, or friends catching up after school.

Houseparty was born in 2016 from the ashes of Meerkat, which helped to kick off the world’s momentary fascination with live-streaming video. Where Meerkat focused on public broadcasts, Houseparty was intended to encourage communications with a much narrower circle. It found early success with young people, who use it after school to catch up with friends in a phenomenon that is sometimes called “live chilling.”

Rubin says that its demographics have shifted over time and now include more adults. Company research shows that the average American adult spends four and a half hours a day at a computer, many of which are equipped with webcams. If the Mac app is successful, Houseparty could come to other computing platforms, including Windows and game consoles, he said.

Apple announced group FaceTime today at WWDC.