Monkey business;Cover feature

12th November 1999 at 00:00
When children use the Internet, it should be safe, fun and educational. That's the view of Surf Monkey, an Internet company that has developed a new Web browser for kids. What's more, the browser, and a sophisticated Web filtering system that goes with it, are being offered to schools and parents for free. Surf Monkey was founded by British-born David Smith, who for the past few years has worked in the IT hot-house that is Silicon Valley on the West Coast of the US.

The idea for the Surf Monkey Browser came to Smith in 1997 and was launched in the US the following year, with support from the Japanese toy giant Bandai. However, with Web browsers like Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Navigator already widely available, do schools need another one? "The browsers out there are not fun, they're not safe and they're not easy for kids. Our browser is a completely different experience," claims Smith.

The Surf Monkey Browser uses a talking, animated character to guide users around the Internet and has a 3-D gaming feature and text-to-speech facility for talking Web pages: "Take an example of bookmarking a Web page. With our browser, you just click on a button and it takes a snapshot, which is stored in your Favourites folder, so you can recognise it easily," explains Smith. The browser has even attracted the interest of Microsoft and the two companies may work together on future versions, says Smith.

But fun and features have their price and in the case of the original Surf Monkey Browser, this meant a software file so large (14 megabytes) it took about an hour to download from the Internet. Since then, the company has developed a reduced version (about a sixtieth of the original size), the Surf Monkey Bar, which sits alongside a school's existing browser - at present Surf Monkey Bar is designed to work with Internet Explorer, but versions for Netscape and AOL browsers should be ready by the end of the year. And so far, Surf Monkey only works with PCs running Windows 95 and 98 - Apple versions may arrive next year. Schools can also continue to use their existing Internet service provider (ISP), too. Surf Monkey achieved the reduction in memory size by putting most of the original features on to a Web server and allowing users to download them as required. The result is that Surf Monkey Bar can be downloaded and installed in around one minute.

Surf Monkey also offers a powerful filtering system to prevent children accessing unsuitable material on the Internet. The first line of defence is an Internet server, which sits between the computer and the Internet and stores a list of over 100,000 banned sites (750 new sites are added to the list each day).

A conventional filtering server works by downloading Web pages then checking to see if they are on the banned list. But this can take time, especially if large numbers of users are accessing the Internet at the same time. So the Surf Monkey server analyses the website address before it searches for it. If the site is banned, a message flashes onto the computer screen to inform the user. However, the filtering does not end there, says Smith: "The Surf Money browser also acts a filter by analysing word combinations, so that while 'chicken breasts' would be acceptable, other combinations would be rejected."

The Surf Monkey service allows schools to set up private chat groups, email services and bulletin boards which can only be accessed by staff and pupils within a school. And Surf Monkey has developed a site directory with over 3,500 links to educational content for most subjects. There is currently a US bias to the list, but the company says UK links are being added to it.

The $10million question, though, is how does Surf Monkey make any money if its browser and the filtering service are free? "We make our money through advertising, sponsorship and offering a shopping mall which sells child-oriented products," explains Smith. David Dews, Surf Monkey's European general manager, adds: "Teachers should understand that we are using two business models, one for the home market and one for education. The latter may not involve adverts." And as Smith points out: "Teachers that have seen Surf Monkey in action are not too bothered about adverts, as they know there'll be adverts on many of the sites kids visit anyway."

Surf Monkey opened its European offices last summer and is currently talking to most of the major British educational companies with a view to developing a UK service. The company is also establishing pilot schools to get more feedback on Surf Monkey's system.

To download the Surf Monkey browser visit www.surfmonkey.com To be involved in the pilot, contact David Dews on davidd@corp.surfmonkey.com

George Cole

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