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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

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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.

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