MIME Message Format Overview, Motivation, History and Standards
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I describe the reasons why universal standards are important in the Networking Fundamentals chapter of this Guide, and re-emphasize the point in many other places as well. Most protocols become successful for the specific reason that they are based on open standards that are widely accepted. The RFC 822 e-mail message format standard is an excellent example; it is used by millions of people every day to send and receive TCP/IP e-mail.
However, success of standards comes at a price: reliance on those standards. Once a standard is in wide use, it is very difficult to modify it, even when times change and those standards are no longer sufficient for the requirements of modern computing. Again here, unfortunately, the RFC 822 e-mail message format is an excellent example.
TCP/IP e-mail was developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Compared to the way the world of computers and networking is today, almost everything back then was small. The networks were small; the number of users was small; the computing capabilities of networked hosts was small; the capacity of network connections was small; the number of network applications was small. (The only thing that wasn't small back then was the size of the computers themselves!)
As a result of this, the requirements for electronic mail messaging were also rather small. Most computer input and output back then was text-based, and it was therefore natural that the creators of SMTP and the RFC 822 standard would have envisioned e-mail as being strictly a text medium. Accordingly, they specified RFC 822 to carry text messages.
The fledgling Internet was also developed within the United States, and at first, the entire internetwork was within American borders. Most people in the United States speak English, a language that as you may know uses a relatively small number of characters that is well-represented using the ASCII character set. Defining the e-mail message format to support United States ASCII (US-ASCII) also made sense at the time.
However, as computers developed, they moved away from a strict text model towards graphical operating systems. And predictably, users became interested in sending more than just text. They wanted to be able to transmit diagrams, non-ASCII text documents (such as Microsoft Word files), binary program files, and eventually multimedia information: digital photographs, MP3 audio clips, slide presentations, movie files and much more. Also, as the Internet grew and became global, other countries came online, some of which used languages that simply could not be expressed with the US-ASCII character set.
Unfortunately, by this point, the die was cast. RFC 822 was in wide use and changing it would have also meant changes to how protocols such as SMTP, POP and IMAP worked, protocols that ran on millions of machines. Yet by the late 1980s, it was quite clear that the limitations of plain ASCII e-mail were a big problem that had to be resolved. A solution was needed, and it came in the form of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME).
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