MIMEs take extra effort with AOL

May 17, 1999|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

When I wrote a couple of recent columns on attaching photos and voice files to e-mail, I hoped readers would try it for themselves. They did, and I was delighted to receive mail from users who were happily sending pictures of the kids to friends and relatives.

I also got a handful of complaints from readers who had received e-mail attachments but couldn't make head or tail of them. When they saved the attachments to their hard drives, all they found was something called a "MIME" file that no program on their computer would recognize.

Noticing that all the complaints came from America Online, I sent several attachments to my AOL mailbox and discovered the same problem. I vaguely remembered fussing with MIME files back in the 1980s, but I hadn't realized that this old bugaboo was still around. Luckily, it's fairly easy to solve.

First things first. MIME is an acronym for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, schemes that allow photos, programs, voice files, videos and other data to be sent along with regular e-mail messages.

Why is this necessary? The story goes back to the birth of e-mail, which was originally designed to send standard text messages over the fledgling Internet. As you probably know, computers don't really transmit the characters or phrases you type -- they deal strictly in binary numbers. To convert text to something your computer understands, each character is assigned a standard numeric code.

All the characters we normally use in verbal communication can be represented by numbers from zero through 127. They require that your computer process only only seven bits of data -- digital ones and zeros. So the original e-mail system was set to handle 7-bit characters we normally use in verbal communication can be represented by numbers from zero through 127. They require that your computer process only seven bits of data -- digital ones and zeros. So the original e-mail system was set to handle 7-bit characters.

As time went by, however, applications were developed that made digital records of photos, voice messages, graphics and spreadsheets. These require more information, and they're stored in characters or "bytes" that contain 8 bits each.

Sending these files via e-mail requires a system for converting 8-bit data into 7-bit data, or normal text. That's what MIME functions do. When you attach a photo to an e-mail message, your e-mail program automatically performs the MIME conversion -- you never see it happen. On the other end, your recipient's e-mail program should do the same thing in reverse.

Unfortunately, some e-mail programs can't handle the decoding on the receiving end -- all you get is the MIME file, which looks like gobbledygook on your screen and isn't recognized by normal graphics, word processing or spreadsheet programs.

AOL's e-mail system has trouble with some MIME files transferred over the Internet from the outside -- particularly messages that contain more than one attachment (that five-photo series of your son stuffing cake up his nose at his first birthday party).

When you try to download those photos, AOL will store them in a single file with the extension MIM (other e-mail programs that can't automatically decode MIME attachments may use different extensions).

The best way to deal with the problem is to avoid it altogether. If you're an AOL subscriber, ask your correspondents to limit themselves to one attachment per e-mail message. If you're sending e-mail attachments to an AOL customer, limit yourself the same way. To send five photos, send five messages.

If you're sending e-mail attachments to a non-AOL customers who has a problem with MIME conversion, this limitation may help, too.

Unfortunately, you can't always control what people send you. If you're an AOL customer and find yourself with an undecipherable MIME file, you'll need a program that to convert it back into its original format. Luckily, there are sources of free or inexpensive help.

For starters, point your Web browser to the Mime Help Page (http://members.aol.com/decodemime/), a private site set up by an AOL staffer that explains the problem and walks you through possible solutions.

You can also find MIME conversion programs available as freeware or shareware that can be downloaded with your Web browser. If you're using Windows 95/98, point your browser to www.winzip. com and download the shareware version of the WinZip archiving program. It will not only convert MIME attachments back to their original form, but also allow you to archive multiple files and compress them in the near-universal Zip format to conserve disk space or transmit them over the Internet.

For another approach, surf to Funduc Software's Web site (www.funduc.com) and download their free Windows 95 Shell Extension (it works with Windows 98, too). This program will add MIME decoding to the Windows menu that pops up when you right-click on a MIME file.

Apple Macintosh users can surf to Aladdin Systems' Web site (www.aladdinsys.com) to download a free version of the company's Stuffit Expander software, which specializes in converting files in Mac formats. The company also has a Windows version of the program.

Send e-mail to mike.himowitz@ baltsun.com.

Pub Date: 05/17/99

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