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Email Mountains Contain Gold, Says Attachment Inventor

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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There’s gold in our heaps of emails, says Nathaniel Borenstein, who delivered the email attachment 20 years ago today

Twenty years ago, on the 11th of March, Nathaniel Borenstein sent the first ever meaningful e-mail attachment. The historic text message was accompanied by a picture of four Bellcore employees (the Telephone Chords barbershop quartet), and a song – “Let me send you e-mail”. The song celebrated the creation of MIME – Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension protocol, which later became the worldwide standard for e-mail attachments.

Now, a trillion attachments are sent every day, and Borenstein is working on what to do with the vast archives of emails organisations are creating. They could hold the key to productivity, and help us head off future economic disasters, he told  TechWeekEurope in an anniversary interview.

How does it feel to have co-invented something as important and widespread as e-mail attachments?
It is almost certainly the case that when I die, it’s the thing that is going to be mentioned first in my obituary. I take more pride in my family, but I also take pride in MIME. Mostly, it was a natural continuation of things I was pursuing. I wanted to live in a world where certain functionality existed.

When people asked me, “why do you work so hard on this?” I used to say that someday I’m going to have grandchildren, and I wanted to get their pictures by e-mail. A lot of people laughed, because it was inconceivable back then. No one even thought of digital cameras, so people pictured taking a print and scanning it in, and then transmitting it over their 1200 baud modem, and even that was expensive equipment.

The power of a free protocol

The Telephone Chords (John Lamb,Nathaniel Borenstein, Michael Littman and Nathaniel Borenstein)

Why do you think MIME became a standard?
Some people think I made a great technical invention, or found some way of digitising pictures. In fact, the accomplishment was mostly political. To do it, you had to have certain technical understanding and competence, but the hard part was to get a hundred or so e-mail geeks to agree to do everything the same way.

I was concerned with multimedia, working on that for several years. I had built a multimedia mail system, that Steve Jobs had seen and imitated. Meanwhile, there was a much larger group of people who had the need for multi-lingual e-mail. Back then e-mail was either in English, or in a national format. So when a Japanese researcher went to America and used an American machine, any mail he got in Japanese would look like gibberish.

And then there was a third problem. At the time, there were a lot of e-mail systems besides Internet mail. There was Usenet, Bitnet, CSnet, who knows how many more. Passing messages between them was a real black art. My partner-in-MIME Ned Freed, his old business was gatewaying, so he was aware of the need for a format that would make it easier to gateway messages between different mail systems without losing information.

To my mind, the clever thing about MIME was that we managed to tackle all these issues at once. That created a sort of bandwagon effect. People might have said, “oh, I don’t care about multimedia, I’m not going to bother adding MIME support to my reader”, but the number of people who cared about at least one of those things was huge, and so adoption happened very fast.

Do you think the success of MIME was in a large part due to it being free and open-source?
Absolutely. The most common question I get about MIME is, “have you ever imagined what it would be like if you got a penny every time MIME was used?” And the answer is oh yeah, I imagined that (laughs). I did some checking up, and there’s an estimate that MIME is used a trillion times every day. So if I got a penny every time, my annual income would be roughly equal to the GDP of Germany. But of course, that’s just a silly fantasy. If there was any money involved, it would never have succeeded. Somebody would have been motivated to develop a similar thing for free.

How has MIME changed in 20 years?
We anticipated the need for future expansion. At the heart of MIME is the content type system that describes what kind of data is being sent. So if you have a new kind of data, you can choose a name that isn’t used, register it with the Internet assigned names authority, and you’re up and running. The original MIME standard had 16 content types. As of last month, there were 1309 content types. The core, the syntax of it hasn’t changed.

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