A FirstClass Solution

by John Keegan

Finding the right e-mail package for your office or organization in Japan can be a frustrating search. It has to be a multi-platform solution; your local area network (LAN) has Windows machines as well as Macintoshes. It should be accessible by modem, and the ability to integrate your company's support BBS with your e-mail system would minimize administration. An intuitive graphical user interface would be useful, because it would decrease the amount of training needed for users to get up-to-spee d on the new software. The package should be fully bilingual or, even better, multi-lingual. And don't forget connectivity with an existing mail system, as well as the Internet, and SQI, database access, and....

Does this sound like a quest for the groupware holy grail? FirstClass, a client/server communications product from SoftArc Inc. of Toronto, Canada, can meet these requirements. And it will do it for a lot less yen than you'd have to shell out for Lotus Notes.

FirstClass server

The FirstClass Server runs on a Macintosh: any Mac Plus or higher will do. The server connects to your LAN over AppleTalk or Ethernet. An optional IPX module allows Windows access over the network (AppleTalk access is built-in). Novell NetWare is suppo rted, but not required. Also, SoftArc has announced a TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol) option that will allow access to a FirstClass Server over TCP/IP networks -- such as the Internet -- and for server-to-server gateways via TCP/I P

Remote access requires adding modems to the server machine. Because of the Macintosh's limited number of serial ports, however, installation of a NuBus serial port expander card (such as Creative Solutions' Hustler) is necessary to increase the numbe r of modems beyond two. FirstClass can handle as many as 100 simultaneous users, and 22 of these can be through a modem when the server is configured with Hustler cards. Some sites use ISDN (integrated systems digital network) to provide greater throughpu t between client and server, as well as for high-speed server-to-server gateways. X.25 access is also possible. SoftArc likes to refer to its Server software as a "black box," since nearly all administrative tasks are performed using the Client software.

The FirstClass Server costs US$95 for a 2-user configuration, with software and manuals. Most organizations purchase this initially for testing, then move on to add additional user licenses if the software has been successfully evaluated. There are t wo classes of user licenses: regular and telecom. A regular user license is more expensive but allows access over a LAN and via modem; a telecom user can only access by modem. A 2S-user regular license upgrade costs $995; a 250-user telecom license upgrad e costs the same $995. Educational, reseller and hobbyist pricing and is available by request from SoftArc. Server upgrades are free; registered owners receive an ID on SoftArc Online and can download upgrades from the Administrator's area.

FirstClass client

The FirstClass Client is a freely distributable application. It is available for Windows 3.1 and Macintosh (and DOS and UNIX versions are currently under development). The client enables a user to access a FirstClass system under a graphical user inter face (similar to America Online or CompuServe Information Manager) via a network or modem. A settings ( file, created by each system's administrator, provides sounds, icons, and graphics customized for that system. All graphics are contained in the client /settings files for instantaneous display. Unlike some other mail packages, FirstClass enables users to perform the same tasks via modem as they can over the network.

Navigation through the system is point-and-click; downloading is as simple as double-clicking on a file. Since the client is fully multi-tasking, it is possible to simultaneously chat online (with someone on a different platform), read and reply to m essages, download and upload files, and search a database.

FirstClass desktop

Once logged into a FirstClass Server, users are presented with their FirstClass Desktop. (A sample desktop from SoftArc's Support BBS, SoftArc Online, is shown in the figure on page 17.) All users have a mailbox on their desktop. FirstClass supports al l the email features you'd expect in a high end communications package: forwarding, autoforwarding, receipts, message history (showing who has read your message, and when), autoreply, file attachments, creation of subfolders in a mailbox for filing messag es, online graphics viewing or sound playback, and much more. In addition to the standard message form, others such as Picture Message, Phone Message, and Requisition Forms are available. A utility for administrators, called the FirstClass Forms Editor, a llows the creation of custom message forms.

Conferencing is similar to e-mail. Conferences are public mailboxes, for which administrators control access privileges. Selected users can be allowed to send to a conference, while other users may not even be able to open the folder. Administrators can model the desktops according to the user's class; for example, in-house LAN (local area network) users can have access to a complete set of conferences, while users of the public support facilities can view only those conferences intended for the publ ic.

Multilingual support

SoftArc's approach to multiple-language support puts the burden on the client rather than the server. Macintosh users running a nihongo capable system, such as KanjiTalk or the Japanese Language Kit, can use the English FirstClass Client yet have compl ete nihongo support. Japanese users might prefer to use the Japanese language version of the Macintosh Client. All menus, dialogs, etc, will appear in the language of the Macintosh Client being used.

The Windows Client has not yet been Japanized; nevertheless, it fully supports double-byte characters under a nihongo capable DOSN with Windows 3.15, or OS/2J. "FirstClass is one of the few commercial e-mail packages that allows users to post messages in Kanji on a Macintosh and have them appear in kanji in Windows," says Dallas Kachan, SoftArc's Sales and Marketing Manager. "A considerable amount of the work to make FirstClass truly multilingual was prompted by interest from the Japanese market."


The server comes standard with a server-to-server gateway built-in. Any two (or more) FirstClass Servers can be configured to gateway with each other via network or modem. A FirstClass Server in a Tokyo office and one in an Osaka office, for example, c an be configured to exchange email and replicate conferences quickly and easily. Full directory synchronization, providing automatic updating of user directories on the two servers, can be performed at programmable intervals.

Most users of FirstClass systems are known in the directory by their full names rather than by an obscure user ID. This makes sending mail from the Tokyo office to a user on the Osaka server as simple as typing in the first few letters of the recipient 's name. FirstClass will "multi-match" on any item in the directory.

If more than two servers are gatewayed together, mail can be exchanged through intermediate servers by a process known as "multihop mail." With the addition of a Nagoya server to our example, there need only be a gateway between Osaka and Tokyo and ano ther between Nagoya and Tokyo. This might be useful for ensuring that telephone bills are centralized in one location, such as by having only the Tokyo server place calls. Mail created on the Nagoya server and bound for a user on the Osaka server will "ho p" to the Tokyo server and be transferred to the recipient's mailbox on the next Tokyo/Osaka gateway.

Other gateways available for FirstClass include Internet gateways from SoftArc and from Information Access Technologies Inc. (IAT). Hologate, IAT's Internet gateway, can connect FirstClass to the Internet via UUCP, as well as act as a bridge between Qu ickMail, Microsoft Mail, and FirstClass in addition to providing Internet mail and newsgroups for all three systems. SoftArc's Internet gateway has a unique licensing policy: by combining the Internet gateway with directory synchronization, users on the O saka server in our previous example could send and receive mail through the Internet although the Internet gateway exists only on the Tokyo server. Even Internet mail can multi-hop through a FirstClass distributed network. (SMTP gateways are expected to b e released soon by both companies.


The OneNet Member Network -- or the "Internet for The Rest of Us," as founder Scott Converse likes to refer to it -- is a global network of FirstClass BBSs created using the built-in server to-server gateway. OneNet has grown from a single system in Sc ott's garage in Los Altos, California, in November 1992 to nearly 500 systems worldwide that exchange email and conferences. It is estimated that there are over 200,000 users on OneNet member systems.

More than four hundred conferences are available on the OneNet Prime central server located in Boulder; Colorado. These conferences are distributed throughout OneNet by regional hubs in North America, Europe, and Asia. Topics range from Apple Press Rel eases to Wired magazine. Regional hubs carry a minimum of 100 conferences, and many replicate all the conferences on OneNet Prime in addition to distributing local and regional conferences.

OneNet uses a special type of server synchronization provide private mail hop e-mail to members. Full synchronization of directories (update a constantly changing list of a thousand user names on hundreds of systems modem) would be prohibitively expens ive, so OneNet systems exchange "Route Names" rather than user directories. Route Name is a pointer to a gateway that exists on a remote system. Sending mail through routes is as simple as sending mail through gateways, the major difference being that the remote user's name and home system name must be known by the sender.

OneNet in Japan officially began September 1993, when a link was established between Boulder and the moovBBS (Macintosh Owners Operation as Vanguard Users Group) server administered by Keiki Usui. moovBBS and J-LINK, a server located in Toyohashi, imme diately began exchanging these conferences, and OneNet Japan was born. There are currently more than forty systems in Japan exchanging English OneNet conferences. Popular conferences include Japan Talk (an international general-interest conference), Nihon go (also gatewayed internationally), and regional conferences devoted to computing, leisure, and business in Japan.

See for yourself!

The easiest way to learn more about FirstClass is to access one of the many public systems in Japan. To get a copy of the latest version of the client software, log onto any FirstClass BBS that supports the Command-Line User Interface (CLUI). Most syst ems maintain a clearly labeled directory from which you can download the client software. Some BBSs allow auto-registration: you can register online with an ID and password of your choosing (CLUI does not support Japanese double-byte characters). Remember to enter your full name (middle initial is optional), as it will become your online name. If auto-registration is not available, try logging in using "Guest" for both User ID and Password.

The FirstClass client software is also available on major online services, such as CompuServe and America Online. Nifty-Serve users can sign onto the English side and find the Macintosh software in the Macintosh forum (GO MACFORUM) or the Windows 3.1 c lient in the IBM forum (GO IBMFORUM).

When you have installed the client software, try accessing some of the systems listed in the "OneNet Japan member systems" sidebar. Since CLUI and Windows access are optional add-ons to the FirstClass Server, check to be sure that the BBS supports acce ss from these platforms before you call.

For more information about FirstClass and third-party products, contact:

SoftArc Inc.
100 Allstate Parkway Markham, Ontario L3R 6H3 Canada
SoftArc Inc.
1902 Ridge Road, #325 West Seneca, New York 14224 USA
Tel: 905-415-7000
Fax: 905-415-7151
FirstClass: 905-415-7070
Internet: sales@softarc.com