E-mail Pioneer Borenstein Sees Hope, Flaws in Chaotic Tech Industry

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recently left Apple to start a computer company called NeXT, which was also developing computer workstations for the higher education market.

Jobs was sniffing around the Andrew Project, partly looking for talent to poach. Borenstein says Jobs barely knew what e-mail was at the time, but seeing what the project team had accomplished so far with Andrew Mail inspired him.

Jobs “made decisions quickly and tried to hire the whole team,” Borenstein recalls. “Nobody went. I knew enough about him to know that he’d win every argument.”

Jobs began working on NeXTmail, the e-mail client for his computer’s operating system. NeXTmail eventually evolved into Apple Mail, but it didn’t interoperate with the system Borenstein was building for the Andrew Project, much to his dismay.

At that time, there were no official standards governing e-mail and attachments, and Borenstein says the lack of interoperability between Andrew Mail and NeXTmail inspired him to create some. He was determined to work on the problem of rich e-mail interoperability because he imagined that one day, he’d have some grandkids, and when he did, he wanted to be able to receive pictures of them on his computer. (That wish came to fruition, by the way, when his twin granddaughters were born eight years ago.)

What Borenstein ended up co-designing with Ned Freed was the MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) protocol, an Internet standard for the formation of messages sent online. Prior to the MIME standard, e-mail attachments could only be opened by two people using the same software, rendering them almost useless. As he told the Guardian in 2012, “Our achievement wasn’t figuring out one way of sending an attachment. It was getting 100 other e-mail geeks to agree on the same way of doing it.”

In 1992, Borenstein sent the first functional attachment to the group of 100. It contained a photo of a barbershop quartet he sang in and a recording of the quartet singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Today, he says, e-mail users send out more than a trillion MIME attachments each day. Around that time he talked with Dave Crocker, who urged him to come up with a catchy name for his creation—hence MIME—and he calls that discussion “probably the best 15 minutes of my career.”

If those sound like the words of a cynic, take Borenstein’s trajectory into consideration. In 2018, the world is not always a kind place to vegetarian pacifists who care more about the long-term functionality of the Internet (and the planet, for that matter) than amassing the plaudits or staggering wealth that some of his Silicon Valley peers enjoy.

“I remember being impatient for people to come online so I wouldn’t have to send out paper Christmas letters anymore,” Borenstein muses.

He and his early Internet colleagues imagined that they were creating a utility for the common good that would unite people across vast physical, ideological, and socio-economic distances. Yet the current reality doesn’t look much like those utopian dreams of the 1980s.

Take the repeal of net neutrality, described by the Washington Post as “a sweeping act of deregulation” that dismantles the rules overseeing broadband companies like Comcast and AT&T. The repeal clears the way for broadband providers to sell tiered levels of Internet service, charging more for preferred access, and to slow down or block sites belonging to competitors. For example, a service provider could block access to Netflix or Amazon if it suits their purposes, requiring customers to purchase service plans from multiple providers depending on what websites they want to visit.

Borenstein recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post for Mimecast that imagines what a future without Net neutrality looks like: “January 10, 2024. Today I broke down and got myself a second home Internet service. Our existing Comcast subscription lets us watch Netflix, but we needed a Verizon connection to watch Hulu. It seems absurd to spend $200 per month on a second ISP, but I’m afraid that my marriage might not survive another argument about whether we should have Hulu or Netflix. … There is a silver lining, however: We would never have paid for a second Internet service just for streaming music. … But now with Verizon, we can get Spotify, and it’s wonderful to be able to hear The Beatles again.”

While the picture the blog post paints is grim, Borenstein warns that the eventual reality might be even worse. The U.S. could end up like China, whose government is notorious for blocking websites it doesn’t like, typically for political reasons, behind the so-called … Next Page »

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