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Walking through MIME fields: Snubbing Steve Jobs to Star Trek tech

Email daddy Borenstein talks rejection and attachments

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One attachment: A human kidney

After 20 years, Borenstein reckons MIME won't be usurped but new types will be defined to help extend MIME. "It's like changing our backbone," he said of MIME.

Well, what new types? In 1993, Borenstein formulated an April Fools' RFC for a matter MIME type; he visualised transporting people around the web using it like a Star Trek transporter. Today there are MIME types to send 3D models to 3D printers; last year saw the demonstration of a "printed out" working human kidney. "The next step in that is: 'E-mail me a new kidney'," he said. "I predict MIME types for smell: as the technology comes along people will want to send perfume applications."

The future is less certain for the system that MIME revolutionised: email. Silicon Valley watchers reckon the amount of time punters spend on social networks is killing email, as more people choose to communicate though sites like Facebook and Twitter instead of the one-to-one or one-to-CC medium of email. The web is a more dynamic and more self-referential place than it was in the early 1990s world of communication narratives.

The chief operating officer for one of those sites, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, has also gently embraced this end-of-email theory, postulating that email is "probably" going to shuffle off this mortal coil. It's a compelling theory for a place where the past is constantly being casually blown away, but a place that that's also greatly out of touch with real-world notions of legacy.

Ironically, email is so prolific it's actually turning some people off. The pain of inboxes so inundated people can't respond isn't new. Last year, the chief executive of IT services company Atos, Thierry Breton, said he was banning internal emails because managers are spending too long reading and responding to messages.

A 2009 study by the Radicati Group reckons there will be 2.5 billion email users worldwide by 2014 compared to 1.9 billion three years ago. Radicati reckons [PDF] 2.8 million emails are sent every second. Despite what the champions of social networking and evangelists of "socializing" enterprise systems tell you, email remains a big part of doing business thanks to the huge legacy of email communications sitting in servers and the fact email storage systems help organisations conform to quaint regulation.

Borenstein buys into this idea with his company, Mimecast, which provides email-based services. Facebook also buys into this, if you read between the lines. Zuckerberg's social network last year began providing @facebook.com email addresses on top of its Messages service. Facebook goes to great lengths to deny that it's providing email even though the company is trying to become more like Google and clearly trying to tempt Gmail users.

The future again

For Borenstein, this reminds him of the days in the late 1980s and early 1990s before MIME when email systems from one provider couldn't talk those of another.

"In my book that's email," he said of the Facebook system. "It's proprietary email on Facebook. That's not the death of email - that's a new email protocol. It's never going to be a success, having proprietary Facebook protocols that only goes to other Facebook worlds," he said.

Borenstein reckons the future is not one medium or the other, but a mixture: "I have trouble believing the idea that email is dying when it's still growing but at a deeper level. We find social networking enables different types of communications, and it might be a better medium for certain things, but not for others.

"I see the possibility of increased integration with social networking - we may be able to get past social networks killing email and get to how they work well together." ®

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