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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

By , Network World
February 01, 2011 08:02 AM ET
Ned Freed and Nathaniel Borenstein

Network World - 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.

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