Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of MIME Email Attachments


About 80 people congregated recently at Applied Communication Sciences (ACS) in Piscataway to hear Dr. Nathaniel Borenstein discuss how he and Ned Freed, then at Bell Communications Research (Bellcore), created the first Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) attachment 20 years ago.

In 1992 the MIME specification defined a standard format for multimedia data on the Internet, and in its first trial an email message featuring an audio recording, written lyrics and a photo of a barbershop quartet from Bellcore was heard and seen around the world. Twenty years later, MIME is used roughly a trillion times per year, and the set of defined MIME types has grown from under 20 to over 1,300, said Borenstein, now chief scientist at Mimecast (Waltham, Mass.).

Why did the event take place at ACS? Until January 2012, ACS was Telcordia Advanced Technology Solutions. Prior to that, Telcordia was Bellcore, where MIME was developed. Bellcore had its research roots in famed N.J. research incubator Bell Labs.

Before MIME’s invention, email attachments could not be sent between users on different email systems, because the few systems supporting attachments had proprietary ways of handling them, an ACS spokesman explained. As the general public started to embrace the Internet in the 1990s through various service providers, the need for a standardized way to attach multimedia files to email messages became necessary. It was MIME that became that standard, and its evolution is depicted in this infographic.

At the event, the original Telephone Chords barbershop quartet members, Borenstein; Michael Littman, now the computer science department chair at Rutgers University(Piscataway); John Lamb; and Dave Braun, reunited to sing the song that was part of the original attachment. Sung to the tune of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” its humorous lyrics describe the essence of multimedia email.

Borenstein’s talk focused on the nontechnical factors behind MIME’s success. One reason for that success, according to Borenstein: the culture at Bellcore, which allowed the researchers to do whatever was necessary to “make people use more bandwidth” and “improve the world”—a legacy of Bell Labs. “Such labs are an endangered species,” he noted.

The standard itself filled an unmet personal need, Borenstein said. “I wanted to email pictures of my grandkids.” Also, and, putting aside personal needs, he said non-English speakers needed email, too, and the MIME standard would provide a way for people communicating in other languages to send multimedia email. Borenstein explained in his blog, “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.”

Borenstein is one to spread the credit around. He noted that it took a visionary to connect the dots and make things work, and that visionary was Einar Stefferud, who died last year. Stefferud introduced Borenstein to Ned Freed (now a senior principal engineer at Oracle in Monrovia, Calif.), and they partnered on the standard’s invention and definition.

Another reason for the MIME attachment’s success, according to Borenstein: the two researchers decided to create an open-ended system with no constraints on future innovation. Borenstein advised future standard makers to give theirs “a catchy name or acronym.” It’s much better to be known for something easy to remember than for an obscure term with a string of numbers after it. Of course, the MIME standard does have a more technical name: RFC 1341.

Bellcore didn’t make a dime from the standard, and neither did the team. Borenstein said he often gets asked how much money he would have made if he’d earned even a millionth of a penny for each MIME attachment in use today. He said the amount would add up to a “semi-Romney,” or “Ned and I each would get a quarter Romney.”

The MIME standard endures. Newer innovations, including the Web, social networking and recent projects to “reinvent email,” are using MIME as a building block, Borenstein said.

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