The MIME guys: How two Internet gurus changed e-mail forever

Two decades ago, Nathaniel Borenstein and Ned Freed revolutionized multimedia e-mail by creating the MIME standard

Two decades ago, Nathaniel Borenstein and Ned Freed wrote MIME, the Internet protocol for sending multimedia e-mail messages. Here’s how they did it.

Every time you send an e-mail, consider cutting a check to Nathaniel Borenstein and Ned Freed.

Two decades ago, Borenstein and Freed wrote MIME, the Internet protocol for sending multimedia messages. But Borenstein, a Michigan resident and now the chief scientist of enterprise e-mail vendor Mimecast, scoffs at the notion that he should be raking in royalties each time an e-mail is sent.

"If I could get a hundredth of a penny for every MIME message, you wouldn't be talking to me, I'd be on some mountain somewhere," Borenstein said during a recent interview with Network World.

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Of course, the Internet would be hobbled if standards such as MIME were treated like syndicated TV shows, generating royalties for their creators. For Borenstein and Freed, it's enough that the two men fundamentally changed the way billions of people interact with technology and communicate with each other. While they don't enjoy the rock-star status conferred on the founders of Apple, Google and Microsoft, the two men continue successful careers in the technology field to this day while looking back fondly on the time they reinvented e-mail -- long before anyone had heard of Yahoo or Gmail.

Borenstein was a researcher for Bell Communications Research (Bellcore), while Freed was building an Internet messaging company called Innosoft when they teamed up to create MIME, or Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions

"The best piece of advice I ever got in my whole career [was] ... 'Come up with a catchy acronym,'" Borenstein says. Borenstein is sometimes called "Dr. MIME," but "very few people will call me that to my face," he jokes.

Borenstein and Freed did not know each other before they began their momentous partnership. Today, they "see each only very occasionally," Borenstein says. But in separate interviews with Network World, they express a great deal of respect for each other's contributions to e-mail technology, while acknowledging that it wasn't just the two of them who made it happen.

"There was a substantial degree of luck involved in the whole thing," says Freed, who lives in Claremont, Calif., and now works for Oracle by way of the Sun Microsystems acquisition. Borenstein and Freed began working together in 1990, before they even met in person, putting a preliminary proposal together via the primitive e-mail systems that existed back then. "I don't even remember who did the editing. I think we passed it back and forth," Freed says.

Innosoft was trying to improve the e-mail experience, but "the problem was... at the time there was no standardization of anything for multimedia e-mail," Freed says. There were many competing systems, including LAN-based e-mail systems, cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail, Novell, and others, he notes. Even something as simple as how to write an e-mail address hadn't been hammered out to everyone's satisfaction, and some of the existing standards efforts were theoretical and not grounded in reality, Freed says.

Freed was discussing these issues with various people when computer researcher Einar Stefferud at UC-Irvine referred him to Borenstein. "He said, 'Here's this other guy I happen to know at Bellcore. You need to talk to him and you both need to get in touch with the IETF [Internet Engineering Task Force],'" Freed remembers.

But the road to a better e-mail standard wasn't easy. Borenstein says creating MIME was in many ways a political achievement, but it had to be based on good technology. Borenstein and Freed married several different needs. "One was for improved e-mail gateways. That's his," Borenstein says.

"He did the content type piece, and I did the content transfer encoding," Freed explains.

While Freed was concerned about the problems occurring when content moved from one e-mail system to another, "I wanted to be able to send pictures and videos and stuff like that in e-mail," Borenstein says. "And by the way, when people would ask me, 'Why do you care so much about putting media into e-mail?' I always said because someday I'm going to have grandchildren and I want to get pictures of them by e-mail. And people's reaction was to laugh and laugh."

Borenstein started receiving pictures of his twin grandchildren via e-mail in 2009.

Selling MIME to the IETF

After putting together a preliminary proposal, Borenstein and Freed flew to St. Louis for an IETF meeting in March 1991, where they finally met in person and presented their ideas to a wider audience.

"The IETF didn't care about multimedia," Freed says. "They cared about internationalization. They wanted to put internationalized characters into e-mail messages. Obviously, if you can do multimedia, you can do that. People were a little skeptical, I guess, about the more grandiose nature of our vision. What they really wanted to do was a much simpler hack on top of existing e-mail systems."

IETF decisions seemed to come from the upper echelons and were "remote and mysterious," Freed says. "We didn't quite know how to influence the process."

But they had help along the way. While Borenstein and Freed were the primary editors of the MIME standard, Freed notes that key contributions came from the likes of IMAP inventor Mark Crispin and Keith Moore of the University of Tennessee. 

After a fairly extensive revision process, MIME reached a key milestone by becoming a proposed standard in June 1992, and the IETF blessed MIME as a draft standard in 1993. MIME is still technically in draft form, after all these years, because of the bureaucratic process IETF uses to bring standards to the technology world. "It's a long and rather tedious process," Freed says.

But the fact that MIME is technically not finalized has little effect on the real world. Virtually all e-mails sent today use MIME, even those that contain only text and no images or video files, Borenstein says. Even people who somehow avoid using e-mail interact with MIME content if they surf the Web. "Any object in your e-mail is formatted in MIME," he says, "and every time you get a Web page you're going to, at the very least, have objects marked as MIME types."

Among other things, MIME allows e-mail to contain multiple objects in a single message, non-ASCII characters and non-English languages, multiple fonts, and of course multimedia objects like images, audio and video.

MIME misses

Borenstein grudgingly acknowledges that spam messages take advantage of MIME too, but insists, "I'm not to blame. The first spam was well before MIME -- it was in the '70s, actually."

While the creators of MIME certainly shouldn't be blamed for the proliferation of spam (some estimates have spam volumes exceeding 90% of all e-mail), Borenstein is quick to note several misjudgments he made in his long career.

Borenstein was working at Carnegie Mellon in the mid-1980s when he saw Windows 1.0. Carnegie Mellon was using a "vastly superior window manager of our own," and "these guys came in with this pathetic and naïve system and we just knew they were never going to accomplish anything."

Few could have predicted the success of Windows when it was first unveiled, so Borenstein isn't alone here. Perhaps more surprising is that Borenstein was also skeptical when he first saw webmail. The co-creator of MIME clearly did not foresee the days of Yahoo and Gmail and constant smartphone access.

"The reason I was skeptical is I couldn't imagine ever being away from my own computer for that long," Borenstein said. "You know, if I carried my laptop with me everywhere, why would I need webmail?"

Then again, in the early '90s some people scoffed at Borenstein when he said e-mail should be used to send pictures and video.

The only version of MIME, ever

For all its success, MIME isn't perfect. Borenstein is embarrassed by one aspect of the protocol that may prevent MIME from ever being updated.

In the "garbage headers" that can be found in e-mail messages, there's a flag that says MIME-Version: 1.0.

The intention was to allow MIME to change, to advance to version 2.0 and so forth, but this decision led to the opposite outcome, making it nearly impossible to create a new version of the standard.

"We did not adequately specify how to handle a future MIME version," Borenstein says. "So if you write something that knows 1.0, what should you do if you encounter 2.0 or 1.1? I sort of thought it was obvious but it turned out everyone implemented that in different ways. And the result is that it would be just about impossible for the Internet to ever define a 2.0 or a 1.1."

Luckily, Borenstein says, "there's never been a need to advance the standard." However, one could still argue that the space used to indicate the MIME version in each e-mail is unnecessarily sucking up bandwidth and storage.

"You could make the argument that it's a total waste of space," he says. "So that's something like a dozen or 15 bytes, probably reproduced 100 billion times on this planet. That's how much space it wastes. That's why I'm embarrassed by it."

What happened next

The versioning mistake was far from fatal to Borenstein's career, although he's experienced several highs and lows.

Borenstein actually became quite rich after creating MIME -- but lost nearly all of it in the dot-com bubble burst. He says that his period of being rich taught him that money has little to do with happiness, and that "not working is really boring."

After co-creating MIME, Borenstein formed an Internet payment systems company called First Virtual Holdings. At its peak, Borenstein says his stock was worth about $10 million, but he lost nearly all of it.

"When it went public I became quite rich, and I used a chunk of the money to do various things, and to start another company, and then when the Internet bubble burst I lost it all," he says. "The stock from its high to its low lost 99.8%, and that was better than any of our competitors, who all went bankrupt."

"So we won," Borenstein adds with a wry smile.

Making a fortune and then losing it coincided with his mother dying from cancer, and so Borenstein saw that while money can ensure a certain level of comfort, it's not the key to being happy.

"There's something psychologists say about money and happiness which is basically that money doesn't make you happy," he says. "Beyond that, the amount of pleasure making a given amount of money gives you is 1/10 of the amount of pain you feel to lose that money. And I suspect it's even worse than that. Getting rich did not make me particularly happy."

Borenstein went on to join IBM, where he worked for seven years, gaining the title of distinguished engineer and overseeing a multimillion-dollar research budget while in charge of standards for IBM's Lotus brand.

Borenstein says he's a "novelty junkie," however, and seven years was the longest he'd ever spent in a job. Looking for something smaller than IBM, but not wanting to work for a tiny startup, Borenstein ended up accepting the job at Mimecast last year.

Although Mimecast's company name "didn't hurt," it wasn't the driving factor behind Borenstein's decision to join the vendor.

At Mimecast, Borenstein hopes to be part of a move toward making e-mail simpler for businesses, like webmail is for consumers, but without losing security controls, archiving and discovery capabilities. Greater insight into e-mail could also improve business operations in surprising ways, perhaps by mapping a company's social patterns and identifying which employees act as the "hubs," or conduits through which other, less social employees are connected, he notes.

"I think the cloud model, with security and controls, archiving, discovery, will allow businesses to have e-mail that is as effortless for them as webmail is for individuals," he says.

Freed, meanwhile, spends his days working as senior principal engineer on the Oracle Communications Messaging Exchange Server, formerly known as the Sun Java System Messaging Server. It's essentially e-mail for the biggest customers, with users such as Verizon and the Apple MobileMe service. Even the White House has used it, Freed says.

"I'm basically doing the same thing I was doing in 1985," Freed says. Freed's startup, Innosoft, was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2000, which in turn was bought by Oracle in 2010.

Borenstein and Freed are each still at least tangentially involved in several standards efforts, although they're not taking the same lead role as they did with MIME. Borenstein, for example, is involved in work on e-mail sender reputations and how to verify that senders are legitimate.

Both men have been keeping their eye on efforts to internationalize domain names and render non-English names into e-mail addresses. The internationalization efforts are largely finished, and plug one of the few gaps left by Borenstein and Freed when they developed MIME.

With MIME, "We made it so you could put international characters almost anywhere except in the actual e-mail addresses," Freed says. This means, for example, that a Chinese person's e-mail address would be written with English characters.

While e-mail is still evolving, MIME's success is evident with every e-mail we send.

"There's an awful lot of luck involved, isn't there?" Freed says. "A lot of good engineering, too, but being in the right place at the right time really helps."

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

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