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January 1999


Meridian Internet Messaging System
Nortel Networks, Inc.,

Dept. 1019
One Brunswick Square, Atrium Suite 100
St. John, New Brunswick E2L 4V1
Ph.: (800) 4 NORTEL
Web: www.nortel.com

Price: Varies, but licenses from $17,000 to about $84,000. Call for details

RATINGS (0-5)
Installation: 4.5
Documentation: 4.5
GUI: 4
Features: 3.5
Overall: B

Nortel’s new Meridian Internet Messaging System (MIMS) is a client/server conferencing and collaboration product that features text chat, POTS audio and URL-based document sharing. End users need Netscape Navigator (minimum 4.05) or Internet Explorer (minimum 4.01), plus an analog or DID-enabled digital telephone line. The server connects to a Nortel Meridian 1 Series PBX with a Meridian Internet Conferencing Block (MICB).

INSTALLATION/DOCUMENTATION
MIMS was still a beta product when we reviewed it and its documentation was not finished yet. Meanwhile, our laboratory’s arsenal includes a Nortel switch, but it’s not a Meridian 1 model, and we didn’t have the time or space to buy and install an entire PBX just to review one conferencing product. So, we tested MIMS’ real-life functionality by linking to a server at Nortel. Although we were not able to experience the installation firsthand, Nortel media relations provided us with the beta documentation and the same overview documents used to train interconnects.

We gathered as much installation information as we could from the interconnects’ manual. MIMS sells as a bundle that includes the server software, user licenses, PC Anywhere software, a server, and the MICB, all of which are factory-installed. System administrators can also buy the components individually and install them on-site. Organizations that plan to have meetings with six or fewer attendees can choose not to buy the MICB, opting instead to use the Meridian telephones’ respective 3/6-way conferencing features. Requirements include Windows NT 4.0 Server, 128 MB of RAM, 4 GB hard disk space, two network cards, a DAT drive, and a 33.6 Kbps modem.

The main installation guide was thin, but its three chapters covered a wide range of topics. These topics included a definition of the intended reader and a list of related documents, plus lists of requirements for the on-site telecommunications system and for client and server hardware and software. There was also a site preparation guide, discussion of the server and MICB installations, information on configuring the database and product registration, and information about start-up scripting and final configuration. Unfortunately, all of this was crammed into 12 pages, with the phrase "see related document…" repeated several times. We liked the online help file better — this document had well-organized how-to sections in which all functions were listed in alphabetical order, and each function had an explanation followed by step-by-step directions. There were hyperlinks everywhere and simple definitions of the features, GUI buttons, and room scheme.

FEATURES
The MIMS feature set begins with its most basic design goal: To let users share and discuss documents using no special software or hardware other than a telephone and an up-to-date Web browser. This is something that MIMS does well. Users who only have access to a telephone can attend the audio portion of a meeting, and Web attendees can bring documents for personal reference or to share with other attendees. Any document created in or embedded into a URL works — users just need to link the document to a briefcase. Then, users can open documents locally or share them, which makes them appear on the room’s conference table or on a similar image. The file folder also sits on the conference table in the room and serves as a central overflow resource, where users can put documents if the table area gets too crowded.

The meeting agenda and business cards are two other interesting functions. Agendas are made by whoever creates a room and starts the meeting, and they are accessed through the room’s properties menu. Business cards are created and viewed through a similar method: Each user configures their own properties, which are viewed when other users right-click on a given user and choose properties. Other features include:

  • Unlimited meeting attendees.
  • Customizable user avatars.
  • Multiple avatars per user.
  • Graphical view/list view toggle for organizing crowded rooms.
  • Room and user link directories.
  • Guest user option, enabling basic features for some users.
  • Up to 32 simultaneous voice calls when using the MICB.
  • Time-stamped error logging and current usage updates for administrators.
  • Room persistence — room data remains even if a user exits and enters again.

Another feature of MIMS that we find valuable is its ability to be an appropriate product for several industries. Because of its document sharing and one-to-all chat mode, MIMS would work well in distance learning or forum-like groups. Because it doesn’t require a lot of new hardware for a business that is already Nortel-equipped, it makes a good conferencing product for enterprise situations. We caution, however, that MIMS is not a replacement or competitor for NetMeeting, which would be more appropriate in cases when separate telephone and network connections are not available or when the voice quality isn’t as important as the feature set.

OPERATIONAL TESTING
After opening the proper intranet or Internet site and wading through two layers of password protection and a lobby view, users see their own and other attendees’ avatars, which can be clip art images, scanned photographs, etc. Theoretically, even an animated .GIF file should work here, although we didn’t try it because uploading one’s own avatar was one of several miscellaneous features that were unavailable in our beta software. All attendees except designated "guests" have the power to invite others to meetings and to build or tear down new rooms, but only the room’s system administrator can designate the current room properties.

Users’ local windows also show images of a virtual briefcase and the central file folder, and everyone can share URLs and conduct text chats in one-to-one or one-to-all modes. Audio conferencing is switched on or off by any user, but the call originates from the server side, where the Meridian PBX’s MICB calls users’ real-life telephones. If an MICB is not in use, a standard 3/6-way conference call can originate from any user. (Individual users and the system administrator can both set media properties — i.e., whether or not new attendees are automatically brought into text chat mode or automatically telephoned by the server.)

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
In addition to slow load time and expense, there a few things we would change about MIMS before recommending it. One is the business card option — card data is stored on the server for as long as the room exists, even if a user exits and enters again, but there is no way to collect and store cards locally. We suggest that Nortel use the standard .VCF file format for business cards. Also, using the Meridian 1/MICB tandem limits the system to 32 simultaneous voice calls, which would not be enough for many applications.

MIMS could also benefit from an option that resembles FTP, which would allow users to add files that don’t have an associated URL, and a whiteboard option, perhaps over IP. As we explained above, no one at Nortel ever intended for MIMS to replace products like NetMeeting, but whiteboarding is a very important feature, and if the network connection exists for text chat anyway, how hard could it be to add whiteboarding?

CONCLUSION
One thing that we especially like about MIMS is its help file, and we’re fond of the metaphors in place of avatars, briefcases, conference tables, etc. We dislike the limitations of the video conferencing dialing ability — if it’s not an analog telephone or a DID number, then MIMS can’t dial it, and there are a lot more standard digital telephones with extensions in use than any other kind. MIMS goes on sale in early 1999, and we’re already looking forward to seeing improvements in its next version.







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