Feeds

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

Email daddy Borenstein talks rejection and attachments

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

What next for MIME? The world wild web awaits

The timing was ripe for MIME, coming on the heels of CERN-based computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee's work on the first world wide web server, web browser and humanity's first web site in 1991. Berners-Lee needed a way to exchange multimedia messages but didn't want to re-invent the wheel.

"Just as we reached this consensus on the MIME standard, Tim Berners-Lee and his folks said they had to figure out how to do multimedia, so they said 'let's use this new MIME thing'... this thing I'd never heard of called the World Wide Web adopted it and took over the world," Borenstein said.

Fate played its hand several times in the making of MIME, and therefore the internet as we know it.

First, there was Borenstein's interest in email that stemmed from his service job at CMU - all students were assigned tasks outside of their studies. His job was running CMU's email system in 1980. "That turned into my entire career, which wasn't my goal at the time," he told us.

Borenstein joined the Andrew Project upon completion of his thesis, and it was Andrew that inspired MIME. Andrew tagged files with a content header but it used just a flat namespace that assigned everything a single label; this meant the list of possible headers became cluttered and content didn't always come through as readable. You might open what you thought was an image only to be confronted by pages of densely packed random characters - the raw data of the picture.

It was through Andrew that Borenstein met email pioneer Einar Stefferud, active in internet standards and credited with inventing the first internet mailing list, at a conference where X.400 - rival to SMTP email - had dominated discussions.

Stefferud was impressed by Borenstein and hooked him up with the person who was to become his MIME collaborator, Ned Freed. Borenstein's interest was in the exchange of multimedia content while Freed's interest lay in building a gateway between different email systems. By the time MIME went to the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF) for discussion, people had piled onto MIME's third aspect - sending non-English without it becoming gibberish.

"I was the only person with a paper not on X.400. I ran into these people who believed email can't do what I've already made it do [with Andrew]," Borenstein said of the X.400-heavy event. "Einar made a beeline for me."

Getting MIME accepted internationally at the IETF was a matter of politics. The landscape was a battlefield of the kinds of technology disagreements, vendor bickering and a hazy belief that market forces would pick a de-facto standard that we would come to know and, er, love. Often, Borenstein says, the best way to get critics onside was to conceded a minor point and then add them to MIME's lengthy list of contributors. Just one person rejected this play, he said, an individual who believed MIME was "very ugly".

A better built MIME

To this date, Borenstein concedes MIME could have been built better but accounts for its design on the need to be backwards compatible with huge chunks of what is now regarded as the internet's backbone, ARPANET, that was already in place thanks to the military and universities that pioneered it. Back then MIME had to support FTP and data encoding used on older servers as well as Base64 and ASCII. "If you were starting from scratch, you wouldn't start at Base64 and 7-bit ASCII," Borenstein says.

Two decades on, and despite its complexity, MIME is embedded in the internet. Borenstein, who is chief scientist at Mimecast, reckons one trillion MIME attachments are exchanged every day. The number of MIME types to describe different media has grown considerably from the original 16. Its success is because of the freedom you have in being able to define new name types.

Intelligent flash storage arrays

More from The Register

next story
UNIX greybeards threaten Debian fork over systemd plan
'Veteran Unix Admins' fear desktop emphasis is betraying open source
Netscape Navigator - the browser that started it all - turns 20
It was 20 years ago today, Marc Andreeesen taught the band to play
Redmond top man Satya Nadella: 'Microsoft LOVES Linux'
Open-source 'love' fairly runneth over at cloud event
Return of the Jedi – Apache reclaims web server crown
.london, .hamburg and .公司 - that's .com in Chinese - storm the web server charts
Chrome 38's new HTML tag support makes fatties FIT and SKINNIER
First browser to protect networks' bandwith using official spec
Admins! Never mind POODLE, there're NEW OpenSSL bugs to splat
Four new patches for open-source crypto libraries
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Cloud and hybrid-cloud data protection for VMware
Learn how quick and easy it is to configure backups and perform restores for VMware environments.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.