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The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Here's a MIME That Actually Facilitates Communication

January 10, 1996|DANIEL AKST

God, I hate mimes. All that white makeup, all that infernal exaggeration and pose--the whole thing bores me to death. On the other hand, I'm exceedingly fond of MIME, which, unlike human mimes, facilitates communication rather than mocks it.

Since almost everyone reading this column uses electronic mail, and since the hardest part about e-mail is sending and receiving file attachments, this week I'll try to explain sending files across the Internet by e-mail. The key, of course, is MIME, which stands for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions.

Why should anyone care about MIME? Well, thanks to MIME, I was able to send my publisher a Microsoft Word for Windows file containing a fully formatted resume. If I'd sent the resume as a regular e-mail message, no such formatting would have been possible. Similarly, MIME can be used to send photos, sound, spreadsheets and other data not amenable to conventional e-mail.

In short, MIME is the way people on the Internet e-mail files to one another.

The best thing about MIME is that, when it's working right, it's invisible. You just attach your file, send off your message, and the file arrives at the recipient's computer in pristine condition. Software built into the mail programs at either end takes care of everything else.

Unfortunately, e-mailing files often isn't this easy. The reason is that the Internet was set up to carry data in the form of plain text, or ASCII, which stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. This is the stuff you type whenever you send a regular e-mail message.

But these days people often want to send not just plain text, but pictures, sound or even software via e-mail. Or they want to send formatted word processor files created with Word, WordPerfect or another major program. Such files could be saved as plain text, but of course formatting, tables and the like would then be lost. The files we're talking about here are known as binary files.

Since the Internet mail system was set up for ASCII only, various means have sprung up for expressing binary files using only ASCII characters. It's kind of a translation process. In this way, binary files can be e-mailed, and in fact most e-mail programs and online services offer a file attachment feature.

There are several such encoding systems for facilitating binary e-mail, and MIME is probably the most widely used. If you and your recipient both use e-mail programs that "support" MIME, you ought to be able to send binary files quite easily.

To see just how easily, I used my Internet account to send a message with a small Word for Windows file attached. Using Eudora, a widely available e-mail program, I sent this message to my addresses at America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy and another Internet service.

Here's what I found:

* Internet-to-Internet: No problem. Eudora automatically MIME-encodes outgoing files and MIME -decodes incoming ones, storing them on your hard drive. Pine is good for this too.

* Internet-to-AOL: To my surprise, no problem. When confronted with a binary file attachment, AOL's mail module worked flawlessly, prompting me to download the file, asking what I wanted to call it, etc.

* Internet-to-CompuServe: Problem. CompuServe delivered the file as a bunch of gibberish included with the text message, not as a separate file. Fortunately, I recognized this as MIME encoding and so cranked up one of the little decoding programs I keep handy for this purpos e. The simplest is mimedec (go PCFF and search for, which runs from the DOS command line; just save the entire message to a file in the same directory as mimedec. You needn't even worry about removing the plain text at the beginning.

A fancier program for Windows is called Wincode (, which will decode and unzip files (for MIME, go into the program's options and choose base64 from the list of encoding schemes it will deal with). Macintosh users can grab mpackis.sit, also on CompuServe, which appears to perform the same function.

* Internet-to-Prodigy: Same problem as CompuServe, with the same solutions. The message gets there, but the recipient has got to decode by hand.

(Note that one CompuServe user sending a binary file to another CompuServe user is no problem at all, and the same goes for Prodigy to Prodigy and AOL to AOL.)

Although MIME is the best way to send binary files--when it works right, you don't have to do anything, after all--there is a kind of brute force method called uuencoding, which is still commonly used. Uuencode and uudecode are widely available on the Internet and the major online services, and if your recipient also has a copy, you can uuencode a binary file to turn it into ASCII. Then you just paste it into your message. The recipient uudecodes it on arrival.


It's worth noting that people often think they're having file transfer problems when something else is actually amiss. For instance, I sent a Word for Windows file to a friend who complained that it arrived as gibberish. The actual problem was that it arrived as a Word for Windows file, which he had no effective way of viewing. (Free viewers, shareware programs like Drag and View, and word-processing conversion filters are widely available to solve such problems.)

Another complication to look out for is sending a PC file to someone who uses a Mac, or vice versa. This is not always the problem it seems, however. Nowadays, for instance, Word for Windows and Word for Mac can easily exchange files.

Looking ahead, I suspect that it won't be long before multimedia e-mail is fairly routine. Whether this will be an improvement is another issue altogether.

Akst can be reached at

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