Nathaniel Borenstein

It's no secret that I love email; I've devoted most of a 30-year career to email technologies, standards and innovations. And email has treated me very well in return, allowing me to work from home while raising my children, and to live hundreds of miles from the nearest high-tech employer. So generally, I'm more than content to be known as an email expert. But everything has its downside, and for me the worst thing about being an email expert is the endless recurrence of the "death of email" meme.

There has been a slow but steady trickle of pronouncements that email is dead or dying. I've rebutted these many times, so here I'll just say that if you get rid of email you'll inevitably replace it with something that will accumulate most of the features, advantages, and disadvantages of email, and that I'll call the result email.

But a few days ago, I was leaving London just as people were beginning to pour in for the Olympics. At Heathrow, more than half the people I saw were wearing lanyards with the name "Atos" prominently displayed. Atos is a major Olympic sponsor, and its CEO, Thierry Breton, has been one of the most prominent advocates of doing away with email. I found myself wondering whether there was a single person in that throng who didn't use email, even the Atos employees with a rank below CEO. And then it hit me: it all comes down to social standing.

It's well known that being fat used to be a status symbol, because it showed you were rich enough to have more food than you needed. In modern times, as more and more low-status people have grown fat, being slim has become a status symbol, because it shows you have the leisure to exercise and the money to buy healthier but more expensive foods.

So it has gone with email. I can well remember when having email was a status symbol -- it showed that you were up to date, technically sophisticated, even hip. Celebrities got email addresses but admitted they didn't know why. Those days are long gone, since nearly everyone has email. But every example I can think of in which someone has visibly given up email, they are extremely high status individuals with options most of us lack.

Donald Knuth, one of the world's greatest computer scientists, gave up email to kick off the 1990's and hasn't touched it since. He claims, probably correctly, that this allows him to be much more productive in his truly important work. If you want to communicate with him remotely, you can email his secretary, who'll talk to him and perhaps respond. Certainly a CEO like Breton can give up email, because he can have an assistant handle all his messages for him.

Going back further, and even more radically, the writer Wendell Berry famously eschews computers entirely, as he explained in his famous 1987 essay, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." (The link includes my own published response.) All his writing is done on a manual typerwriter. But he doesn't do it himself -- his wife does it for him.

Giving up email (or computers, or any technology that is nearly ubiquitous) is nearly unthinkable for most of us. But those of us who are in a position to have someone else do the work can easily choose to do so, and it sends a subtle message to the world that we're so important (or have such a devoted wife) that we can have others do the job for us.

It's often said, for example, that you can't get by in most parts of America without a driver's license. But it's never true; if you're rich enough to hire a personal driver, it's a piece of cake. And it may even be true that it's justified by the important work you can do in the back seat, unencumbered by the need to avoid an accident.

Having one or more dedicated assistants would certainly allow me to give up email. For that matter, I wouldn't need to master the technology of indoor plumbing if I had an assistant to draw my bath, wash my hands and flush for me. There are obvious reasons why most people wouldn't go that far, but I've certainly met executives who don't carry a cell phone, because they can just tell an assistant who to call and what to say.

So, the next time a CEO, famous scientist, movie star, or high-ranking politician proclaims the death of email, take that person's identity into account. If they're replacing email with a solution that most people can't afford, that's probably all you need to know. For my part, I'll believe that email is dead when secretaries and salesmen stop using it. I'm not holding my breath.

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The Shape Email is In

by Nathaniel Borenstein - Chief Scientist

Email has become the principal means of business communication, and has largely displaced most previous technologies for personal  communication.  Yet we have remarkably little information on how people use it.  This means that those of us in the email business are trying to improve something that none of us fully understand.  It's little wonder that email innovation has slowed in recent years!

"Oh, you don't know the shape I'm in." -- Robbie Robertson, The Band

This week Mimecast is launching a long term series of studies called "The Shape of Email."  The goal is simple to state and difficult to achieve:  we want to deepen our collective understanding of how people use email.

Attempts to understand email use have previously come in two flavors:  deep, serious academic studies, and wild overgeneralizations from a few convenient data points.  The former are so difficult and time consuming that they don't produce enough data, while the latter are too speculative to be generally believed.

We're looking for a third approach, a Middle Way.  We think there's a fair amount of information to be gleaned from somewhat less rigorous surveys, as long as they have a significant sample size and aren't extremely biased.  No single such survey can be viewed as the whole truth, but we hope that collecting enough of them might prove genuinely enlightening.

My friends in academia will, correctly, rail about sampling error, statistical signficance, and other methodological flaws with this approach.  But we're not claiming to be producing that kind of data.  We are, however, hoping that combining enough imperfect studies will give us a hint of the truth.

Towards that end, we're hoping to collect as much data as we can, and see if some larger truths emerge from the collision of diverse imperfection.  I'm guardedly optimistic that the errors won't be systemic, but will tend to cancel each other out. We're releasing one such study now, a tiny first step.  If you know of any email usage studies that are interesting but not suitable for scientific peer review, we'd love to hear about them; we promise to share any conclusions or hypotheses we come up with.

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Sharing the credit is remarkably useful in leading argumentative technology gurus to consensus. At the end of the MIME standard, there's a long list of acknowledgements of people who helped draft the standard. I found that adding someone to this list made them less argumentative. There's no downside to sharing credit generously.

After this week's celebration of MIME's 20th anniversary, I expected to feel sated enough leave it alone for another 20 years. But I think it might be worth writing just a bit more, summarizing the lessons MIME might teach about how to create a successful technology standard.

1.  Where you work matters. I devoted roughly 2 years of my life to defining MIME. Not that many employers would tolerate that, but I was a researcher at Bellcore, with a broad mandate to promote more bandwidth use in the future. Other companies support standards work, but few to the extent that Bellcore supported me. It would have been hard to create MIME while working for most technology companies.

2.  Address a real need. Most people didn't know it yet, but the world really needed an interoperable, open standard for multimedia data; almost everything on today's Internet reflects this reality. I realized it early because I had built a multimedia email system at Carnegie Mellon, and Steve Jobs had followed up with something similar at NeXT, but the two systems couldn't exchange multimedia data with each other. I knew that some day I wanted to get pictures of my grandchildren by email, but I didn't want my kids and I to have to use the same email software.

3.  Address another real need. Any standard will face barriers to adoption, at least from the inertia of the installed base; meeting two major needs can increase the number of people who care, and hence the pressure for adoption. 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.

4.  Connect the dots and share the credit. Some successful teams self-assemble, but behind most successful teams is a visionary who figured out what parts needed to be brought together. In the case of MIME, the visionary was the late Einar Stefferud, who introduced me to Ned Freed and suggested that we collaborate on the work that became MIME.

5.  Keep your goals modest, realistic, and limited. I know, extending email to include all human languages and all media types doesn't sound like a limited goal, but the truth is that we achieved those goals via a very limited mechanism. We avoided trying to settle as many battles as we could, preferring instead to create a framework for the debate to continue. Thus, MIME doesn't declare  JPEG a better image format than GIF, or PDF superior to HTML and DOC; we just made it possible to unambiguously define labels for these types, such as image/gif and image/jpeg. (The wisdom of this approach is clearest when you consider applying it to the natural language problem: had we tried to specify that everyone should always speak English, or Chinese, we would never have found consensus.)

6.  Acknowledge that your vision is limited. Standards designers tend to overspecify; MIME was designed in the aftermath of X.400, a proposed email standard that failed in large part due to its complexity. Rather than try to imagine every future use of MIME, we created an initial set of media types, and a registry for defining new ones. The result is that the number of media types has grown from under 20 in the original standard to over 1,300 today.

7.  Worry about branding and marketing. This is the lesson I find hardest to convey to technically-oriented people, who tend to dismiss anything non-technical as fluff. The fact is, technologies are adopted (or not) by people, who are subject to a wide range of influences. Good publicity and catchy names really matter.

In fact, the best advice I've gotten in my entire career came from Dave Crocker, the author of the original Internet email standards, who convinced me to come up with a clever name or acronym. I laughed, but he was insistent, so after 15 minutes I came up with "Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions" -- MIME which, because it is much catchier than, say, RFC 1341, is often used conversationally.

Essentially, because people have heard the name MIME and perhaps have a vague idea what it is, I have instant credibility with total strangers.

8.  Give it away. If you want to see a standard adopted, it helps to produce a solid implementation and release it as open source software. I built a software package called metamail, a standalone MIME implementation for UNIX that could be plugged into any mail reader, and released it to the world when the MIME spec was stable. Combine real need and free software, and things happen fast. Within a few days, I received patches that made it work on DOS, while Macintosh, Amiga, and others were not far behind. Again, credit is due Bellcore, for supporting building such software only to give it away.

There are other lessons, I'm sure, but most relate to technical details and are unlikely to be of wider value. So now, perhaps, I can stop writing about MIME for another ten or twenty years and see what it looks like then.

Photo CC via Len RadinDave GrayÞorgerður Olafsdottir on Flickr  

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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

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