Attachments in Hand

Can't get e-mail attachments on your BlackBerry? Try Onset's Web-based converter.

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 Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry wireless e-mail product. 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 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. METAmessage Conversion Server (MCS), from Onset Technology Inc. in Santa Cruz, Calif., 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 InfoWorld's highest rating.

MCS is available as a Web-based service, and companies that want more control can install the MCS Enterprise Edition software on their servers. In both cases, the usage scenario is essentially the same. For example, a BlackBerry user installs the METAmessage applet on his device. Messages with attachments are identified with an icon, that the user can click on to process an attachment such as a Word document through a preconfigured process.

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

This approach has many pluses and one serious caveat. The big plus 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 1.2-GHz 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 setup 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 identification files, Lotus customers will need to verify that the MCS host has the Read and Lookup IDs installed to complete setup.

Installing MCS in our environment went fairly smoothly, although we ran into minor hiccups caused by incomplete or inconsistent documentation. One issue could become serious 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 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 for importing and updating users from the mail system's address book or for manual entry.

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, we persuaded volunteers to cradle their BlackBerries for software installation. Two small pieces of code have to be loaded through the BlackBerry Desktop Manager software, and this might require tinkering with the handheld's allocation of memory between programs and data, but it 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.

Connolly is a senior analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center.

Special Report

Tiny Gadgets, Huge Costs

Stories in this report:

This story, "Attachments in Hand" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon