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[whitespace] A barrel of monkeys

Campbell--David Smith, president and CEO of Surfmonkey.com, struggles to score some points during his demonstration of the computer game Birdseye. His character: a bird flying over traffic. The objective: to deposit that special bird surprise on cars below. He aims at several targets, but the vehicles remained unscathed.

"I'm obviously no good at this game," he says, in mock defeat.

Smith isn't the corporate CEO I had pictured: he surprised me with a British accent and an unabashed enjoyment of kiddie entertainment. But his 3-year-old company, located at the Pruneyard, has the savvy as well as the whimsy that ensures a flourishing success in the Silicon Valley.

If Smith isn't shooting a video news release in Monkey Business, his executives are free to use the room to meet with business partners. If not, Monkey See and Monkey Do are just down the hall. To top it off, the receptionist plays Monkees' tunes for clients when they're on hold. These folks are serious about their work.

The 50-person company, with headquarters in Campbell, is all about children and the Internet. Smith's brainchild is a free browser that make the online world safe for kids to navigate. Surf Monkey is the first Internet company to offer a complete web browser designed specifically for kids. Also available are the Surf Monkey Bar, a navigational tool and "cyber shield," and the Surf Monkey Kids Channel, a closed, safe environment for kids.

"We have a whole generation of kids for whom the Internet is an integral part of their lives," says Smith, himself a father of two.

Currently, he says, 8 million kids are wired online. It's estimated that this figure will triple over the next three years.

Surf Monkey products place a heavy emphasis on security for children. The browser, aimed at ages 6 and up, is made possible through a partnership with SurfWatch Software, which holds the only patented content filtering software. The most important aspect of the browser is that it blocks out offensive words and content. If the user searches for material deemed inappropriate, an animated character explicitly says the page is inaccessible, or a series of x's filters out the unwanted phrases.

Furthermore, a behind-the-scenes monitor supervises each chat room session. The absence of private chat rooms precludes the meeting of strangers. Also, parents can set up their children's email buddy lists, and without a password, mail from addresses not accounted for is locked out.

"As a father, I'm responsible for my son, who's at a young and impressionable age," says parent Paul Kimball. "I don't want him to see inappropriate content, and the browser fits the bill. He can't go where he's not supposed to."

Despite the exhaustive security measures, Smith concedes the system is not infallible. Anyone who is determined enough can find ways around the security.

"It's never 100 percent," says the CEO. "For the older kids or the serious hackers, they can always reformat the hard drive. This is not a fool-proof solution."

Parental concerns aside, Surfmonkey.com makes sure children are enjoying themselves. The browser contains a directory of approved educational and entertaining sites that are hand-picked, either by the company or freelancers. In the design of the browser, animation and sound effects bring levity even adults can appreciate. Kids can slime a page, play the bird surprise game (the first thing I tried out), visit Time Magazine for Kids, or use the search engine.

Kimball's 10-year-old son, Thomas, counts himself a happy customer. He says the email and the chats are his favorite aspects and uses them daily. Despite all the content that the browser offers, he still has an idea for improvement.

"I'd like cooking sites with recipes for kids," he says. Thomas is already an experienced cook. He reveals that he likes to prepare chicken dinners when he's not online."

There are several vivid ways to measure the wave of success the company is enjoying. The Monkey surfs with 80,000 kids on board. Smith can afford employees whose job is to play computer games and to comb through the Internet. He also signed up key business partners in England recently (Surf Monkey opened a London office in July) and went on a press tour with BBC radio and TV. And last but not least, even the editors at PC Magazine have taken notice of the browser, which earned a mention in the magazine's October issue.

However, Smith remembers the difficulties he initially had in launching his product. When he first conceived of the idea, children, his main target, were not plugged into the Internet.

"The market was different. The Internet was designed for engineers," he says.

For Smith, the company's future means bringing better technology to Surf Monkey products. "We see ourselves introducing community features," he says. "We want to push back the boundaries."

With more kids predicted to join the wired world, that Surfmonkey.com's job is to make the Internet safe (and more fun than a barrel of monkeys) goes without saying.

"This makes the Internet more fun and entertaining, which adds more value. This is a nice, complete solution for kids," Smith says.
Michele Leung


For more information or to download a free copy of the browser, visit www.surfmonkey.com.

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Web extra to the October 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro.

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