MIME @ 20: A Happy Anniversary

A lot can change in 20 years.

In 1992, only a few people had cell phones, or even knew what email was. South African whites were voting to end apartheid, the first shouts of "Wayne's World!" echoed through the newly opened EuroDisney, in the newly constituted European Union.  Isaac Asimov and Benny Hill died, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez were born, and Microsoft finally found a market with version 3.1 of Windows.

Also new that year was MIME, the now-ubiquitous Internet standard for multimedia data -- for me, the culmination of seven years of work researching, developing, and standardizing multimedia email. Twenty years later, my best guess is that MIME is used roughly a trillion times daily. But in 1992, a single MIME message made a bit of a splash among the few who knew about it.

That message -- often referred to as the first MIME message, but more accurately called the first interesting MIME message -- circled the globe in March 1992, sharing globally a JPEG image and an audio clip of my barbershop chorus, Bellcore's Telephone Chords, singing "Let Me Send You Email."

Next week -- on Monday, March 5 -- ACS, the corporate successor to Bellcore, is hosting a celebration of MIME's 20th anniversary. Old Bellcore hands will reunite, I'll give a brief talk, as will my partner-in-MIME, Ned Freed, via video link. I'll try to draw a few serious lessons from the MIME story ("Eight Non-Technical Factors in MIME's Success"), and for fun, I'll also narrate and try to explain an amazing video from the recent MIT puzzle contest, featuring two mimes miming twenty MIME types. And finally, inevitably, the Telephone Chords will reunite to sing that same song, hoping that this time I hit all the right notes.

On a personal level, my primary reaction to all this is simply:  Where has the time gone? Can it really be 20 years?

Well, yes; it's a whole different world. Twenty years ago, when people asked why I was so passionate about this technology, I'd say, "Some day I'll have grandchildren, and I want to get pictures of them by email." This generally made people laugh -- it was an absurd notion, given the costs of computers, bandwidth, and digitizing photographs. Today, as I receive regular in-utero pictures of my third grandchild, I find it hard to explain to younger folks why this ever seemed unlikely. Can it really be a mere 20 years?

As proud as I am of the MIME work, I don't really believe it deserves as much attention as it gets. We made several mistakes, but fortunately not enough to make up for being in the right place at the right time. I've done plenty of things in my career that I thought were under-recognized, so I can't shed too many tears about this one being over-recognized. It all feels rather random.

I've had plenty of adventures in the last 20 years, raised a family, made and lost a fortune, gotten thicker and grayer. MIME hasn't given me a fraction of the joy that I've gotten from my children and grandchildren. Yet the word MIME is probably as inevitable in my future obiturary as the obituary itself. I figure that on Monday I should simply relax and enjoy the show. If you're going to be in New Jersey on Monday and would like to join in, drop me a line!

Photo CC via Magdalena Swebodzinska on Flickr