The #MIME20 Twinterview Round Up

To mark the 20th anniversary of MIME we hosted a live interview on Twitter – a “Twinterview” – with one of MIME’s co-creators Dr Nathaniel Borenstein. At 3pm on Wednesday our eyes were glued to our screens as the #MIME20 tweets came in thick and fast!

Here are the highlights, as we learnt a great deal about MIME from Nathaniel’s answers.

philcorfan ‏ @philcorfan

Right, here’s my #MIME20 question for @drmime… Can you explain, in 140 characters(!), why MIME was so important?

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 MIME provides a standard & simple way to identify & share any kind of data across platforms.

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 Without MIME, we’d have, in effect, hundreds of separate Internets, mostly vendor-specific.

Steven Ambrose ‏ @ambio

@ambio@drmime Do you see any newer or more secure protocols?

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 Newer protocols, absolutely. But MIME as a data format is much easier for new protocols to adopt than replace

philcorfan ‏ @philcorfan

#MIME20 @drmime You say you made mistakes in developing MIME, with the benefit of hindsight, what would you have done differently?

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @philcorfan We botched anticipation of future changes to MIME, but as no major changes were ever needed it’s merely embarrassing.

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @philcorfan We also didn’t make Content-Disposition clear enough to keep vendors from screwing it up.

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @philcorfan Those are my two biggest regrets, so I guess it could be a lot worse. However, the error anticipating future…

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @philcorfan …changes results in 19 wasted bytes in every MIME object. I estimate it wastes 7 petabytes/year in global bandwidth.

Justin Pirie ‏ @justinpirie

@drmime And do you think that backwards compatibility was one of the main reasons for MIME’s success? #MIME20

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @justinpirie That’s why MIME chose backwards compatibility w/7bit SMTP over a lovely new protocol requiring global retrofit.

To our great disappointment there were no questions about Bellcore’s very own barbership quartet the Telephone Chords. But there were some enthralling questions about the meaning behind the name MIME:

Kirstin Beveridge ‏ @KeBeveridge

@drmime #MIME20 Why did you choose the name MIME? Be honest, is it just because it’s a cool acronym? :)

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @KeBeveridge Basically yes — a cool name promotes adoption, it’s technical marketing. In fact, I believe that the best advice…

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @KeBeveridge …I ever got in my career was from Dave Crocker, author of the original email standards. He said: Find a catchy name.

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @KeBeveridge Catchy name means people say “I want MIME” instead of “I want RFC 1341.” Names are hooks on which we hang ideas.

The Twinterview came to a close at 4pm with this final question:

John Rivers ‏ @johnrivers

#MIME20 @drmime did you face any sceptics when you invented MIME?

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

Oh yes. Why do we need pictures/attachments? Backward compatibility? Even “Why do we need non-English email”!!! #MIME20@johnrivers

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

Fortunately, we didn’t need to convince everyone it was necessary, just that it wasn’t harmful. That was easier. #MIME20 @johnrivers

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

Politically, MIME was achieved by coalition of people with different goals that were mutually compatible. #MIME20 @johnrivers

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

Essentially, they humored each other to gain critical mass. Technical politics is much like any other politics. #MIME20 @johnrivers

A big thank you to Nathaniel for being a great interviewee.

And of course thank you to all who contributed in the Q&A, we hope you all enjoyed participating and unearthed some new knowledge about MIME and emails.


Looking Backwards: Eight Lessons from Twenty Years of MIME

After this week’s celebration of MIME’s 20th anniversary, I expected to feel sated enough leave it alone for another 20 years. But I think it might be worth writing just a bit more, summarizing the lessons MIME might teach about how to create a successful technology standard.

1.  Where you work matters. I devoted roughly 2 years of my life to defining MIME. Not that many employers would tolerate that, but I was a researcher at Bellcore, with a broad mandate to promote more bandwidth use in the future. Other companies support standards work, but few to the extent that Bellcore supported me. It would have been hard to create MIME while working for most technology companies.

2.  Address a real need. Most people didn’t know it yet, but the world really needed an interoperable, open standard for multimedia data; almost everything on today’s Internet reflects this reality. I realized it early because I had built a multimedia email system at Carnegie Mellon, and Steve Jobs had followed up with something similar at NeXT, but the two systems couldn’t exchange multimedia data with each other. I knew that some day I wanted to get pictures of my grandchildren by email, but I didn’t want my kids and I to have to use the same email software.

3.  Address another real need. Any standard will face barriers to adoption, at least from the inertia of the installed base; meeting two major needs can increase the number of people who care, and hence the pressure for adoption. In the case of MIME, multimedia junkies like me were able to make common cause with the deep desire of people around the world to send email in languages other than English. These problems could have been solved separately, but a standard that solved both surely hastened adoption, perhaps even making the difference between success and failure.

4.  Connect the dots and share the credit. Some successful teams self-assemble, but behind most successful teams is a visionary who figured out what parts needed to be brought together. In the case of MIME, the visionary was the late Einar Stefferud, who introduced me to Ned Freed and suggested that we collaborate on the work that became MIME.

Sharing the credit is remarkably useful in leading argumentative technology gurus to consensus. At the end of the MIME standard, there’s a long list of acknowledgements of people who helped draft the standard. I found that adding someone to this list made them less argumentative. There’s no downside to sharing credit generously.

5.  Keep your goals modest, realistic, and limited. I know, extending email to include all human languages and all media types doesn’t sound like a limited goal, but the truth is that we achieved those goals via a very limited mechanism. We avoided trying to settle as many battles as we could, preferring instead to create a framework for the debate to continue. Thus, MIME doesn’t declare  JPEG a better image format than GIF, or PDF superior to HTML and DOC; we just made it possible to unambiguously define labels for these types, such as image/gif and image/jpeg. (The wisdom of this approach is clearest when you consider applying it to the natural language problem: had we tried to specify that everyone should always speak English, or Chinese, we would never have found consensus.)

6.  Acknowledge that your vision is limited. Standards designers tend to overspecify; MIME was designed in the aftermath of X.400, a proposed email standard that failed in large part due to its complexity. Rather than try to imagine every future use of MIME, we created an initial set of media types, and a registry for defining new ones. The result is that the number of media types has grown from under 20 in the original standard to over 1,300 today.

7.  Worry about branding and marketing. This is the lesson I find hardest to convey to technically-oriented people, who tend to dismiss anything non-technical as fluff. The fact is, technologies are adopted (or not) by people, who are subject to a wide range of influences. Good publicity and catchy names really matter.

In fact, the best advice I’ve gotten in my entire career came from Dave Crocker, the author of the original Internet email standards, who convinced me to come up with a clever name or acronym. I laughed, but he was insistent, so after 15 minutes I came up with “Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions” — MIME which, because it is much catchier than, say, RFC 1341, is often used conversationally.

Essentially, because people have heard the name MIME and perhaps have a vague idea what it is, I have instant credibility with total strangers.

8.  Give it away. If you want to see a standard adopted, it helps to produce a solid implementation and release it as open source software. I built a software package called metamail, a standalone MIME implementation for UNIX that could be plugged into any mail reader, and released it to the world when the MIME spec was stable. Combine real need and free software, and things happen fast. Within a few days, I received patches that made it work on DOS, while Macintosh, Amiga, and others were not far behind. Again, credit is due Bellcore, for supporting building such software only to give it away.

There are other lessons, I’m sure, but most relate to technical details and are unlikely to be of wider value. So now, perhaps, I can stop writing about MIME for another ten or twenty years and see what it looks like then.

Photo CC via Len RadinDave GrayÞorgerður Olafsdottir on Flickr



The History of MIME Infographic

Can you imagine not being able to send attachments via email? Probably not, but there was a time, only 20 years ago when sending an attachment would have been unthinkable by most.

The invention of Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) was a critical moment in the history of email. It transformed email from the simple text-only messaging system first demonstrated in 1965, to the extra-ordinarily successful communication and collaboration tool that we all know and love today.

Thanks to the development of the MIME standard, email has become quite possibly the most important business tool of our time – check out the infographic below for the full story.

Also available on Flickr.


Twinterview with MIME co-creator, Nathaniel Borenstein

Almost twenty years ago, Mimecast’s very own Chief Scientist Dr. Nathaniel Borenstein co-created the email format Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension protocol (MIME) and, in doing so, laid the foundations for email to become the world’s dominant personal and business communication tool.

Before MIME, you couldn’t attach or embed anything to an email- no pictures, word documents, files or anything.

MIME enabled people to send and receive attachments via email, and an estimated 1 trillion MIME attachments are still exchanged every day!

I didn’t know until this week that the very first attachment was an image and audio clip of Nathaniel with his fellow Telephone Chords barbershop quartet members singing a short jingle about MIME written to the tune of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”.

To mark the anniversary (and demonstrate his continued love of all popular communications channels!), Nathaniel is hosting a twitter interview – twinterview – to answer any burning questions you may have about MIME, innovation, the evolution and future of email, email’s position in an increasingly social world, how to turn an idea into a world standard… and even barbershop quartets!

Nathaniel will be taking part in the twinterview for a full hour from his own Twitter account @drmime, and is taking all queries so get thinking! All questions should feature the hashtag #MIME20 to ensure Nathaniel sees them. His responses will also include the tag so you can watch the whole interview unravel.

Date: 7th March 2012

Time: 3pm GMT

Hashtag: #MIME20