I ATTENDED the launching of Smart Bro SurfTV in Manila last week and was excited by the product. SurfTV is a device that allows you to browse the Internet and chat with contacts using your television set.

Smart chief wireless advisor Orlando Vea said the product is part of the company’s “Internet for all” advocacy. Vea said the company wants to make Internet ubiquitous in the country, the same way that it did for the mobile phone.

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Vea said the latest data showed that only 18 percent of Philippine households have at least one computer. In Visayas and Mindanao, the figure drops to 11 percent. In contrast, 80 percent of households in Singapore have at least one PC.

Vea said affordability of access devices to the Internet is still a significant barrier to wider adoption in the country.

By making the Internet accessible through TV sets, Smart is bridging “the gap between PC ownership and Internet for all,” said Smart marketing head Annie Naval. TV sets are available in 90 percent of the households in the country.

Naval said during the launch that SurfTV is “the first in the Philippines and possibly the first in the world.”

SurfTV is a set-top box that you connect through the TV’s RCA port, where you plug in the wires of such devices as DVD players. It comes with a SmartBro USB modem for Internet connection, keyboard and mouse.

SurfTV runs a custom Linux package, said one of the Smart engineers who worked on the product. The fact that it does makes the box very extensible. One of the engineers told me that the box can be updated, with the updates triggered either by the network or by the user.

The next firmware upgrade will also come with it the ability to send text messages using the box. You can already send text messages using the Smart Bro Plug-it but in Windows, not in Linux.

I hope that whatever Smart does for the Linux package it uses for SurfTV will be made available to standard Linux distributions. While I already use Smart Bro Plug-it with my Ubuntu laptop, I would love being able to use more of the USB modem’s features like reading text messages from the system for alerts or sending SMS.

SurfTV is exciting because it has a big potential of increasing Internet penetration in the country.

As a content producer, and a regional one at that, it offers me the chance to have an even wider audience. Since the product is targeted at the C and D markets, online publications using regional languages stand to benefit from the potential increase in Internet users.

It would be great if Smart can add applications such as Prism and then deploy websites as desktop applications. Smart can then partner with content producers to push special online content packages deployed as desktop applications. Accessing packaged content this way may be an easier way for those belonging to the product’s target market.

Naval said the device will be marketed in areas in the country with strong Wi-Fi and HSPA coverage.

It is very revealing that the first user of the device, a nursing graduate in Bataan, used it heavily for social networking sites like Friendster and Facebook.

The test user loved the product so much that she bought it immediately, before it was even officially for sale.