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MIME's Co-Creator Reflects on Past, Discusses a Cloud Future

The Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) specification that defines the way multimedia objects are labeled, compounded and encoded for transport over the Internet turns 20 this month. Ned Freed and Nathaniel Borenstein were the two primary authors of the spec. Borenstein, who worked at New Jersey-based Bellcore at the time, sent out the first real MIME message on March 11, 1992. That message included an audio clip of the Telephone Chords, an all-Bellcore barbershop quartet featuring John Lamb, David Braun, Michael Littman and Borenstein, singing about MIME to the tune of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."

"Those of you not running MIME-compliant mail readers won't get a lot out of this," Borenstein wrote in that message.

Are there any non-MIME-compliant mail readers today?

Borenstein, who is today Chief Scientist for cloud-based email management company Mimecast, was in Silicon Valley recently to speak at the Cloud Connect conference. I grabbed a few minutes with him when he stopped in at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. We got the two questions he's asked most often out of the way first.

"Everybody assumes I founded this company, but when I joined, it was six years old," he said. "When I first heard the name, before I ever thought about working there, I thought, they can't do that! But as I learned about the company, I found that I loved what they were doing and I liked the people a lot. And it certainly doesn't hurt them to have the author of MIME working at Mimecast."

Borenstein says most people also want to know if he ever thinks about how much money he would have made if he'd had some sort of financial stake in the now-ubiquitous Internet standard for multimedia data. "They ask me, 'Have you ever thought about what it would be like if you got a penny for every time MIME was used?' The answer is, yeah. It's hard to be precise, but I'd estimate that MIME is used about a trillion times a day. My current income would be roughly the GDP of Germany."

Borenstein joined Mimecast in 2010 after spending eight years at IBM as a distinguished engineer. His duties include long-term product planning, external writing and speaking, and patent strategy and submissions.

"When I joined the company, it had never filed a patent, because all the principals believe, as I do, that patents are deeply evil," he said. "Unfortunately, I had to point out that it's also true that deeply evil people can hurt you, and you really have a responsibility to protect yourself. Our patent strategy is primarily defensive."

Mimecast filed for a patent last year to support a cloud-enabled e-mail analytics system it is developing. The company's flagship service provides cloud-based e-mail management for Microsoft Exchange. That service includes e-mail archiving, continuity and security. It unifies "disparate and fragmented e-mail environments into one holistic solution that is always available from the cloud," the company says on its Web site.

"The cloud makes it possible for companies of a size that could never really contemplate it before to make practical and valuable use of big data and business analytics," Borenstein said. "They can take all that data and finally use it for something besides a dead repository."

In fact, Mimecast's new e-mail analytics system, which he called "proactive e-mail," takes on that very problem. If the demo he showed me is any indication, it could go a long way toward solving the so-called organizational memory problem.

"In any large organization, there's always someone who knows what you're trying to find out," he said, "and yet finding that information is almost always harder than rediscovering it. This is where I see the cloud going: supporting value-added apps that dig into those company archives and bring your own information back to you so that you can use it."

Borenstein is an energetic and positive guy, and he seems to like the work he's doing now at Mimecast very much. But he does miss the days when pure research labs like the one that spawned MIME weren't so uncommon.

"Labs like Bellcore, which was an institution of nearly pure research, are rare birds these days," he said. "And we all suffer for that rarity. After all, MIME grew out of a simple mandate to come up with something that would increase bandwidth usage."

"People would ask me," he added, "why are you working so hard on getting pictures into e-mail? And I'd say, someday I'm going to have grandchildren, and I want to be able to get pictures of them by e-mail. And they would laugh, because back in the 1980s that was too far-fetched."

Borenstein showed me the first photo sent to him in an email by his daughter of his twin granddaughters: an ultrasound image of a cluster of cells.

"The thing I had envisioned all those years ago was supposed to be much cuter," he said.

On March 5, ACS, the corporate successor to Bellcore, celebrated the twentieth anniversary of MIME at its New Jersey headquarters with, among other things, a reunion of the Telephone Chords. Borenstein said he was practicing "so I don't miss the notes this time." I couldn't make it to the event, but the original message featuring the Telephone Chord's singing their MIME song in four-part harmony is available on Borenstein's "MIME & Me" Web page.


Posted by John K. Waters on March 9, 2012