METAMAIL(1) General Commands Manual METAMAIL(1)
metamail - infrastructure for mailcap-based multimedia mail handling
metamail[-b] [-B] [-c contenttype ...] [-d] [-e] [-E contentencoding] [-f from-name] [-h] [-m mailer-name] [-p] [-P] [-r] [-s subject]
[-q] [-w] [-x] [-y] [-z] [file-name]
The metamail program reads a "mailcap" file to determine how to display non-text at the local site. Every mail-reading interface needs to
call metamail whenever non-text mail is being viewed, unless the mail is of a type that is already understood by the mail-reading program.
Metamail consults the mailcap file(s) to determine what program to use to show the message to the user.
At a site where all mail reading interfaces have been modified to call metamail for non-text mail, extending the local email system to han-
dle a new media type in the mail becomes a simple matter of adding a line to a mailcap file. (Although this manual page will discuss only
mail, metamail is equally useful in adding multimedia support to news and bulletin board reading programs, assuming those programs preserve
the "Content-type" header or some other indication of the content type of the messages.)
In general, users will never run metamail directly. Instead, metamail will be invoked for the user automatically by the user's mail read-
ing program, whenever a non-text message is to be viewed. This manual page, therefore, is directed not at end users, but at two categories
of readers: those who are adding metamail support to a particular mail-reading program, and those who are adding lines to a mailcap file.
The former need only to be concerned with the command line syntax of metamail. The latter may ignore the command line syntax, and need
only be concerned with the mailcap file syntax, as described in a later section.
Note: Metamail determines the type of a message using the "Content-type" header, as defined in RFC 1049 and RFC-1341 (MIME). However,
using the -b and -c options, metamail can be made to work with mail that is not in Internet format, including X.400 messages. Note also
that metamail automatically decodes mail that has been encoded for 7 bit transport if the mail includes a Content-Transfer-Encoding header
as specified by RFC-1341. If data has been encoded via the "base64" encoding, it will map CRLF to local newlines for textual data, but not
for other data, unless instructed otherwise by a "textualnewlines" field in a mailcap entry.
When called with no options or arguments, metamail expects to receive an RFC 822 format message on its standard input. The following
options can alter that expectation:
-b This option tells metamail that the message is not in RFC 822 format, but instead is only the body of the message (i.e. there are
no message headers). The use of -b requires the use of -c.
-B This option tells metamail that the message is to be displayed in the background, if it is non-interactive (i.e. it doesn't have
the "needsterminal" attribute in the mailcap file). It cannot be used with -p or -P.
This option tells metamail to use the specified content type rather than the one in the headers, if any.
-d This option tells metamail not to ask any questions before running an interpreter to view the message. (By default, metamail
always asks before running almost any interpreter, if it is running in an interactive terminal and the MM_NOASK environment vari-
able is not set. However, it does not ask about the content-type "text" -- that is, the default value for MM_NOASK is
-e This option tells metamail to "eat" leading newlines in message bodies. This is particularly useful for MH-format mail.
This option specifies the name of the sender of the message. Otherwise, this is determined from the header, if possible. This
information will be placed in the environment to make it available to any interpreters called by metamail.
-h This option specifies that metamail is being used for printing a message. In particular, this means that the normal mailcap "com-
mand" field will not be executed, but instead the command specified in the "print" field will be executed. (If there is nothing in
the print field, the mailcap entry will be ignored and the search will continue for a matching mailcap entry that does have a print
field.) The -h option automatically turns on the -d option.
This option specifies the name of the mail program that called metamail. This information will be placed in the environment to
make it available to any interpreters called by metamail.
-p This option specifies that, if necessary, output should be shown to the user one page at a time. By default, this will cause such
output to be piped through the "more" command, but the environment variable METAMAIL_PAGER can be used to specify an alternative
command to use. Note that one should use -p rather than piping the output of metamail through a pager, because some interpreters
called by metamail might be interactive rather than requiring pagination. Metamail can tell whether or not to use a pager from
information in the mailcap file. This option cannot be used with -B.
-P This option is just like -p, except that it also causes metamail to print "Press RETURN to go on" and await a RETURN after it has
finished with the message. This is intended for use only when metamail calls itself recursively in a new terminal window created
only for that purpose. This option cannot be used with -B.
-q This option tells metamail to be quiet. By default, metamail prints a few key message headers (controllable with the KEYHEADS and
KEYIGNHEADS environment variables) and some other informative information, on stdout before running the interpreter, but this
behavior is suppressed with -q.
-r This option specifies that it is OK to run as root. By default, metamail refuses to run if the real or effective user id is root.
You can get the same effect using the MM_RUNASROOT environment variable.
-R This option specifies that the /usr/ucb/reset should be executed to reset the terminal state, before any other I/O activity.
This option specifies the subject of the mail message. By default, this information is obtained from the headers. This informa-
tion will be placed in the environment to make it available to any interpreters called by metamail.
-w This option tells metamail that instead of consulting a mailcap file to decide how to display the data, it should simply decode
each part and write it to a file in its raw (possibly binary) format. Depending on the circumstances in which it is called, meta-
mail may derive the file name to use from the message headers, by asking the user, or by generating a unique temporary file name.
-x This option tells metamail that it is definitely not running on a terminal, no matter what isatty() says. This is necessary when
metamail is actually running on a pseudoterminal and isatty(3) returns TRUE but there's really no terminal on which to interact
with the user. The same effect as -x can also be obtained with the environment variable MM_NOTTTY.
-y This option tells metamail to try to "yank" a MIME-format message from the body of the message. It is useful when a MIME-format
has been rejected by a mail delivery system that does not now how to format the rejection in a MIME-compliant manner. (For the
convenience of those who can't control how metamail is called from their mail reader, this can also be set with the MM_YANKMODE
variable.) If you use yank mode on messages that really ARE in MIME format, or on messages that do not contain a MIME message in
the body, the effects could be VERY strange. It won't hurt you, but you won't see anything very useful, either.
-z This option tells metamail to delete its input file when finished. The -z option requires that a file name was given as an argu-
ment to metamail, i.e. that it is not reading stdin.
-T This option is intended to be used by metamail recursively, to turn off the effect of the MM_TRANSPARENT environment variable. It
should only be used when the metamail program restarts itself in a terminal emulator window.
File Name Arguments
Any argument that does not start with "-" is interpreted as the name of a file to read instead of standard input.
UNRECOGNIZED MAIL TYPES
From time to time, metamail may tell you something like
**** Unrecognized mail type: 'smell-o-vision'. Writing to file /tmp/metamail.1234 ****
What this means is that your are trying to read a message that contains data that is marked as being in "smell-o-vision" format, but that
your site has not yet configured metamail to properly display that type of data. In the general case, such configuration is accomplished
using the mailcap file mechanism, as described in the next section.
For unrecognized types, metamail simply removes all header and encoding information from the data, and writes it out to a temporary file.
(If running interactively, it will give you more alternatives -- writing it to a temporary file, viewing it as text, or jus skipping it.)
It is up to the user to delete such files when he or she is through with them.
THE MAILCAP FILE(S)
The primary purpose of the metamail program is to allow diverse mail reading programs to centralize their access to multimedia information.
If all the mail reading programs call a single program to handle non-text mail, then only that program needs to know about the diverse
types of non-text mail that might be received.
The metamail program is made more flexible in this role through the mechanism of one or more "mailcap" files. The purpose of the mailcap
files is to tell metamail what program to run in order to show the user mail in a given format. Thus it becomes possible to add a new
media type to all of the mail reading programs at a site simply by adding a line to a mailcap file.
Metamail uses a search path to find the mailcap file(s) to consult. Unlike many path searches, if necessary metamail will read all the
mailcap files on its path. That is, it will keep reading mailcap files until it runs out of them, or until it finds a line that tells it
how to handle the piece of mail it is looking at. If it finds a matching line, it will execute the command that is specified in the mail-
The default search path is equivalent to
It can be overridden by setting the MAILCAPS environment variable. Note: Metamail does not actually interpret environment variables such
as $HOME or the "~" syntax in this path search.
The format of mailcap files is explained in the manual entry for mailcap(4).
NON-ASCII HEADER FIELDS
Metamail has rudimentary built-in support for the emerging Internet standards for non-ASCII data in mail headers. What this means is that
such data will be recognized, decoded, and sent to the terminal. This behavior may be more or less reasonable, depending on the character
set in the header data and the capability of the user's terminal, but it will rarely be any worse than showing such data in its encoded
If set, this variable overrides "/tmp" as the name of the directory in which metamail and associated programs will create temporary
files on UNIX.
If MM_NOASK is set to "1", metamail will never ask the user for confirmation before running an interpreter. Otherwise, MM_NOASK
may be set to a comma-separated list of type names (without white space) for which the user does not desire confirmation. Thus,
setting MM_NOASK to "magicmail,audio" will cause the user not to be asked before running interpreters for magicmail- or audio-for-
mat mail, but the user will still be asked for all other types. (If the -d command line option is given, MM_NOASK is set to 1 for
spawned processes, allowing -d to work recursively.)
The KEYHEADS variable may be set to a colon-separated list of header names, which are the only headers that metamail will print
out. By default, the behavior is as if KEYHEADS were set to:
If KEYHEADS is set to the empty string, no header are printed out. If it is set to an asterisk ("*"), all headers are printed out.
KEYIGNHEADS The KEYIGNHEADS variable may be set to a colon-separated list of header names, which are the headers that metamail will
not print out. This variable is only examined if KEYHEADS is not set.
If KEYIGNHEADS is set to the empty string, all headers are printed out. If it is set to an asterisk ("*"), no headers will be
If MM_NOTTTY is set to any nonzero value, metamail will assume that it is not running in a terminal window. MM_NOTTTY implies set-
ting MM_NOASK to 1. If -z is given, MM_NOTTTY is set for spawned processes, allowing -z to work recursively.
This variable can be used to override the default path search for mailcap files.
If set, this variable overrides "more" as the name of the program to run to paginate output from an interpreter, when pagination
has been requested. Note that the normal "PAGER" variable is not used because many pagers (notably the "less" pager) interfere
with the workings of termcap-based mail viewers.
This variable is not actually used by metamail, but is used by most metamail-compatible mail reading interfaces. If NOMETAMAIL is
set to any value, most mail reading interfaces will never call the metamail program, effectively inhibiting all multimedia func-
If MM_DEBUG is set to any value, metamail will produce slightly more verbose output to tell what it is doing.
If this variable is set to "1", metamail will produce even less output than usual. In particular, it will suppress the "Execut-
ing..." line unless MM_DEBUG is set.
Otherwise, this variable can be set to a comma-separated list of short commands, and the "Executing..." line will be suppressed for
those commands only.
The default setting for MM_QUIET is "cat", which means that the "Executing..." line is printed for all commands executed except
"cat". This makes text support look more natural without sacrificing an understanding of what is going on in more complex circum-
Setting this variable to a non-zero value has the same effect as the -y switch. Be sure to read the caveats attached to the
description of -y before you use it. Basically, the only time you would set MM_YANKMODE is in order to re-enter a mail reader in
which you can't control the way metamail is called, just to read a single rejected MIME message that was rejected by a mail agent
that does not understand MIME. In such cases, you should read that message, exit, and unset this variable.
If this variable is set, metamail will reproduce the entire raw message on stdout, and will open up a new terminal emulator window
in which to do something more intelligent. This option supports certain brain-dead mail readers, such as mailtool, that actually
depend on the output of the UNIX "Mail" program being the same as the raw message in the database.
If this variable is set, it will suppress the printing of character set declarations when mail headers being printed contain text
in this character set. For example, if you set MM_CHARSET to "iso-8859-8", it will suppress warnings when header output is pro-
duced in that character set.
DISPLAY Used to create a terminal window under the X11 window system.
Used to create a terminal window under the SunTools window system.
WMHOST Used to create a terminal window under the old Andrew WM window system.
When metamail calls an interpreter specified in a mailcap file, it sets several environment variables which can be used by the interpreter
This variable is set to the full set of RFC822 headers, if any.
This variable is set to the name of the mailer that called metamail, if the -m option was used.
This variable is set to the content type, as named by the Content-type header or passed in via the -c option. If the content-type
has a subtype and parameters, these are also included in MM_CONTENTTYPE, e.g. "multipart/mixed; boundary=foobar".
This variable is set to an efficient one-line "caption" of the message, typically including its sender and subject.
This variable is set to a non-zero if the use of a pager has been requested for long output (e.g. the -p switch was given.) If -p
is given, MM_USEPAGER is set for spawned processes, allowing -p to work recursively. This option cannot be used with -B.
This variable may be set to a string that is used to start a new terminal window if necessary. The command to be executed in that
window will be APPENDED to this command. By default, this is set to something like "xterm -e" if DISPLAY is set, or "shelltool"
if WINDOW_PARENT is set. Users of Sun's OpenWindows may wish to set TERMINAL_CMD to "shelltool" if they prefer shelltool over
If set to a non-zero variable, this will allow the metamail program to be run by root, the same effect as the "-r" switch to meta-
$HOME/.mailcap:/etc/mailcap:/usr/etc/mailcap:/usr/local/etc/mailcap -- default path for mailcap files.
audiocompose(1), audiosend(1), ezview(1), getfilename(1), mailto-hebrew(1), mailto(1), metasend(1), mmencode(1), richtext(1), showaudio(1),
showexternal(1), shownonascii(1), showpartial(1), showpicture(1), mailcap(4)
In a multipart/alternative body or body parts, some headers in the embedded part that should be displayed may not be displayed. This will
rarely be a problem. Also, in a multipart/alternative, anything of type "multipart" or "message" is considered to be a recognized part,
regardless of the recognizability of its contents. This might be a problem, only further experience will tell.
The "textualnewlines" field in mailcap entries affects a global table of exceptions. This means that if there is more than one mailcap
entry for a given content-type, and they have conflicting "textualnewlines" settings, the wrong value may be used. I have been unable to
conceive of a situation where this would be a real problem, because it seems inconceivable that a single content-type would ever require
newlines to be treated in two different ways, regardless of the environment.
The "%n" and "%F" mailcap fields do not work in "test" clauses, because metamail does not perform sufficient lookahead to do this right.
Copyright (c) 1991 Bell Communications Research, Inc. (Bellcore)
Permission to use, copy, modify, and distribute this material for any purpose and without fee is hereby granted, provided that the above
copyright notice and this permission notice appear in all copies, and that the name of Bellcore not be used in advertising or publicity
pertaining to this material without the specific, prior written permission of an authorized representative of Bellcore. BELLCORE MAKES NO
REPRESENTATIONS ABOUT THE ACCURACY OR SUITABILITY OF THIS MATERIAL FOR ANY PURPOSE. IT IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT ANY EXPRESS OR IMPLIED
Nathaniel S. Borenstein
Bellcore Prototype Release 2 METAMAIL(1)