Huffpost UK Tech uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Judith Lewis Headshot

Email's Biggest Kid Turns 20

Posted: Updated:

The seemingly humble email attachment turned 20 on March 11 2012 and over the years of its life, it's fair to say it has put on a lot of weight. So large has it become, in fact, that measures have had to be taken to restrict its further growth by some companies. In fact, entire systems have been overloaded and migrating emails to systems with greater capacity has become not only a fact of life but a specialist service.

Today the email attachment, which uses a technology invented by Nathaniel Borenstein called Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions technology (Mime, for short), is used an estimated trillion times a day. That is a trillion attachments of cute cats, videos of skateboarding dogs, sensitive company information and top secret encoded files all sent through email servers often pushed to breaking point by something invented less than a generation ago.

When I was working with email servers, one of the many things I learned was the weird way attachments could end up being encoded and just how destructive they could be. From viruses to simply being too large for a client to handle, attachments were sometimes ticking time bombs and not just an essential extension to something we take completely for granted. Email attachments, however, are absolutely essential for modern communication. The mere fact it was invented at all revolutionised email, as suddenly you no longer had to be confined to ASCII characters.

Interestingly, Borenstein now works for a company called Mimecast (see what they did there) who, among other things, offer to screen emails for nasties, save everything to the cloud and help companies whose servers have been pushed to the breaking point migrate to new ones. Mimecast themselves actually offered a free migration assistance plan in 2011 to help overburdened mail servers find shiny new homes.

One of the interesting supporting documents that went along with this was the infographic Mimecast created. In there I found some staggering statistics which may seem small compared to the one trillion email attachments that wiz around cyberspace every day but are still impressive nonetheless. For example, 29% of business (interviewed about migrating their email servers) have over 500GB of email to move. 500GB of document attachments, Powerpoint files and, in all probability, cats. This was not necessarily what Borenstein envisioned when he created the email attachment 20 years ago.

So a really big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the email attachment - panacea and pain in equal measure. Without it the development of modern communications would have been seriously hampered and yet with it we are open to viruses, scams and storage nightmares. Nothing of great value comes without risks though and I can't even begin to imagine what the next 20 years of email attachments will deliver into my inbox.