Product Review: Attachments in hand

E-mail is the primary collaboration tool of our time, and the e-mail attachment is what makes businesses tick. Even after organizations invest in document management systems and integrated collaboration environments, users often find it faster and simpler to attach a document to an e-mail message and send it along.

This is a happy picture, unless you’re one of the increasing number of people who use phone-based text messaging and handheld devices such as Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry series. Because these text-based services can’t handle attached documents, their users demand that co-workers send duplicate text-only copies, and that PC users disable features (such as Microsoft Corp. Word’s Smart Quotes) that have become second nature since 1997.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to deliver e-mail attachments to BlackBerry and other text-only users that doesn’t require document creators to jump through hoops. Onset Technology Inc.’s MCS (METAmessage Conversion Server) offers a way to convert the lion’s share of attached documents on the fly using an existing messaging infrastructure, one good enough to earn a score of Deploy.

MCS is available as a Web-based service, and enterprises that want more control can install the MCS Enterprise edition. In both cases, the usage scenario is essentially the same. For example, a BlackBerry user installs the METAmessage applet on his or her device. Messages with attachments are identified with an icon, and by clicking on the icon, the user can process the attachment – let’s say it’s a Microsoft Word document – through a preconfigured process.

The document is e-mailed to Onset’s Web service or to the corporate MCS server, which extracts the text of the document and mails it back to the user’s handheld. Graphic files can be printed to fax, while the METAmessage applet offers crude but serviceable navigation through Excel spreadsheet files and PowerPoint presentations.

This approach has many pluses, and one serious caveat. The big plus – as we mentioned – is that document producers don’t have to ship multiple formatted sets of the same data. However, companies employing this approach should expect to see character-based charges explode for heavy consumers of attachments. Nevertheless, many shops will find METAmessage useful.

MCS Enterprise can run on Windows NT 4 or Windows 2000; the scale of your installation will determine exactly how much hardware you’ll need. For our half-dozen or so users, we found a 1.2GHz desktop with 384MB of RAM sufficient, but one attractive thing about MCS Enterprise is that it can be installed on more than one machine to provide a manually load-balanced environment.

As part of the preinstallation process, the MCS host must be outfitted with all the client-side applications that will be used to extrude text – with all set-up dialogs completed, a fax board if print-to-fax is needed, and the necessary mail client software.

For both Exchange and Notes, the basics are the same – users are created to correspond to the basic METAmessage processes of Read, GetFile, Lookup, Print, and Respond – but because Notes authentication uses ID files, Lotus customers will need to verify the MCS host has the Read and Lookup IDs installed to complete set-up.

Installing MCS in our environment went fairly smoothly, although we ran into minor hiccups due to incomplete or inconsistent documentation. The one issue worth detailing could become a serious issue in a Notes environment. We found that the MCS software uses the Notes location function improperly. Instead of using the current location as reflected in the Notes client and stored in the {-programming-}notes.ini{/-programming-} configuration file, MCS looks at location documents and selects the first one alphabetically. We hope Onset addresses this in the next release.

Configuring MCS to perform basic Read and Lookup functions was relatively simple. It was here that the documentation redeemed itself with separate entries and illustrations for Exchange and Notes installation. The console application allows the importation and update of users from the mail system’s address book, or manual entry if desired.

After our MCS host was configured and exchanging mail with the world at large, we turned to the handhelds. The tough part was reassuring our guinea pigs that the METAmessage applet wasn’t going to affect the rest of their e-mail operations. Fortunately, with help from our lab assistants Hillerich and Bradsby, we convinced volunteers to cradle their BlackBerries. Two small pieces of code have to be loaded through the BlackBerry Desktop Manager software, and this might require jiggering with the handheld’s allocation of memory between programs and data, but otherwise shouldn’t affect the device.

After the METAmessage applet was installed, we sent the device an e-mail with an attachment containing the configuration pointing to our MCS host. (The configuration can also be edited manually, but there’s usually no reason to do this.) After opening this attachment, we were off to the races. We found it was easy to identify and manipulate our message attachments, although the potential delay – due to congestion of both the MCS host and the network – before receiving the extracted text might be a problem for the chronically impatient.

Ultimately, Onset Technology’s METAmessage Conversion Server is a good, perhaps inevitable, solution to the problems text-based messaging users have with reading e-mail attachments.

If your shop supports BlackBerries or other text-messaging services, you need MCS – and you need it today.


METAmessage Conversion Server 3.1.1

Business Case: RIM BlackBerries and other text-messaging devices extend the reach of e-mail, but they can’t handle attachments. This messaging server can convert e-mail attachments to text on the fly.

Technology Case: METAmessage is the missing link between text-only services and mail attachments. If you use a BlackBerry or a similar device but still fire up your PC to deal with attachments, this is for you.


+ Lightweight, easy-to-deploy client

+ Powerful configuration for customized message flows

+ Doesn’t interfere with mail flow between handhelds and corporate servers

+ Easily scaled to cope with high-volume traffic


– Lacks remote, Web-based management

– Some documentation incorrect or confusing

Cost: US$7,000 for 100 clients

Platform(s): Requires Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino, or other supported environment, with Microsoft Office 2000 and other applications installed on hosts as required.

Company: Onset Technology;