To mark the 20th anniversary of MIME we hosted a live interview on Twitter - a "Twinterview" - with one of MIME’s co-creators Dr Nathaniel Borenstein. At 3pm on Wednesday our eyes were glued to our screens as the #MIME20 tweets came in thick and fast!

Here are the highlights, as we learnt a great deal about MIME from Nathaniel's answers.

philcorfan ‏ @philcorfan

Right, here's my #MIME20 question for @drmime... Can you explain, in 140 characters(!), why MIME was so important?

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 MIME provides a standard & simple way to identify & share any kind of data across platforms.

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 Without MIME, we'd have, in effect, hundreds of separate Internets, mostly vendor-specific.

Steven Ambrose ‏ @ambio

@ambio@drmime Do you see any newer or more secure protocols?

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 Newer protocols, absolutely. But MIME as a data format is much easier for new protocols to adopt than replace

philcorfan ‏ @philcorfan

#MIME20 @drmime You say you made mistakes in developing MIME, with the benefit of hindsight, what would you have done differently?

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @philcorfan We botched anticipation of future changes to MIME, but as no major changes were ever needed it's merely embarrassing.

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @philcorfan We also didn't make Content-Disposition clear enough to keep vendors from screwing it up.

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @philcorfan Those are my two biggest regrets, so I guess it could be a lot worse. However, the error anticipating future...

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @philcorfan ...changes results in 19 wasted bytes in every MIME object. I estimate it wastes 7 petabytes/year in global bandwidth.

Justin Pirie ‏ @justinpirie

@drmime And do you think that backwards compatibility was one of the main reasons for MIME's success? #MIME20

Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime

#MIME20 @justinpirie That's why MIME chose backwards compatibility w/7bit SMTP over a lovely new protocol requiring global retrofit.

To our great disappointment there were no questions about Bellcore’s very own barbership quartet the Telephone Chords. But there were some enthralling questions about the meaning behind the name MIME:

Kirstin Beveridge ‏ @KeBeveridge @drmime #MIME20 Why did you choose the name MIME? Be honest, is it just because it's a cool acronym? :) Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime #MIME20 @KeBeveridge Basically yes -- a cool name promotes adoption, it's technical marketing. In fact, I believe that the best advice... Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime #MIME20 @KeBeveridge ...I ever got in my career was from Dave Crocker, author of the original email standards. He said: Find a catchy name. Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime #MIME20 @KeBeveridge Catchy name means people say "I want MIME" instead of "I want RFC 1341." Names are hooks on which we hang ideas.

The Twinterview came to a close at 4pm with this final question:

John Rivers ‏ @johnrivers #MIME20 @drmime did you face any sceptics when you invented MIME? Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime Oh yes. Why do we need pictures/attachments? Backward compatibility? Even "Why do we need non-English email"!!! #MIME20@johnrivers Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime Fortunately, we didn't need to convince everyone it was necessary, just that it wasn't harmful. That was easier. #MIME20 @johnrivers Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime Politically, MIME was achieved by coalition of people with different goals that were mutually compatible. #MIME20 @johnrivers Nathaniel Borenstein ‏ @drmime Essentially, they humored each other to gain critical mass. Technical politics is much like any other politics. #MIME20 @johnrivers
A big thank you to Nathaniel for being a great interviewee. And of course thank you to all who contributed in the Q&A, we hope you all enjoyed participating and unearthed some new knowledge about MIME and emails.


Thanks to the development of the MIME standard, email has become quite possibly the most important business tool of our time - check out the infographic below for the full story. 

Can you imagine not being able to send attachments via email? Probably not, but there was a time, only 20 years ago when sending an attachment would have been unthinkable by most.

The invention of Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) was a critical moment in the history of email. It transformed email from the simple text-only messaging system first demonstrated in 1965, to the extra-ordinarily successful communication and collaboration tool that we all know and love today.

Also available on Flickr.


Before MIME, you couldn’t attach or embed anything to an email- no pictures, word documents, files or anything.

Almost twenty years ago, Mimecast’s very own Chief Scientist Dr. Nathaniel Borenstein co-created the email format Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension protocol (MIME) and, in doing so, laid the foundations for email to become the world’s dominant personal and business communication tool.

MIME enabled people to send and receive attachments via email, and an estimated 1 trillion MIME attachments are still exchanged every day!

I didn’t know until this week that the very first attachment was an image and audio clip of Nathaniel with his fellow Telephone Chords barbershop quartet members singing a short jingle about MIME written to the tune of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”.

To mark the anniversary (and demonstrate his continued love of all popular communications channels!), Nathaniel is hosting a twitter interview – twinterview – to answer any burning questions you may have about MIME, innovation, the evolution and future of email, email’s position in an increasingly social world, how to turn an idea into a world standard… and even barbershop quartets!

Nathaniel will be taking part in the twinterview for a full hour from his own Twitter account @drmime, and is taking all queries so get thinking! All questions should feature the hashtag #MIME20 to ensure Nathaniel sees them. His responses will also include the tag so you can watch the whole interview unravel. Date: 7th March 2012 Time: 3pm GMT Hashtag: #MIME20


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