949: File Transfer

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File Transfer
Every time you email a file to yourself so you can pull it up on your friend's laptop, Tim Berners-Lee sheds a single tear.
Title text: Every time you email a file to yourself so you can pull it up on your friend's laptop, Tim Berners-Lee sheds a single tear.


Cueball is trying to help two people, his friend and his friend's cousin, exchange a 25 MB file. Most people know how to use email to send files through the internet, but (as of 2011 when this comic was published) 25 MB exceeds the attachment size limit of most email services. The reason there is a limit is because every email has to be transferred between several mail transfer agents, and each one has to temporarily store a copy of the email. Space constraints on those mail servers means that they must impose size limits, and an email with such a large attachment will therefore not be delivered.

The next option is to upload the file to an FTP server (FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol, as opposed to HTTP, Hypertext Transfer Protocol), used to transfer files between computers on a shared network, such as the internet. However, FTP servers are a touch more esoteric than a mere email attachment, and many internet users don't have access to one of their own.

Web hosting is simply the ability to create a website and store all the data for said website on a server which is connected to the internet. If Cueball's friend's cousin had the ability to do that, sharing the file would be as easy as putting a copy of it in an accessible directory and sending the link to the desired recipient.

Megaupload was one of many sites on the Internet that recognized most users' inability to host large files on their own, and so offers to host large files, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee. The payoff is that in order to make such a service profitable, many of these sites are cluttered with banner and pop up ads in a mad effort to squeeze as much ad revenue out of every page view as possible. It's not a dealbreaker for some, but Cueball seems to think it'll be too much for his friend's cousin to handle.

AIM Direct Connect was a file sharing system on AOL Instant Messenger, which was already suffering severe drops in popularity by the year 2000. Clearly, Cueball is grasping at straws here: anybody desperate enough to invoke the name of AOL as a solution instead of a problem must be at their wits' end.

Dropbox is a program with a web-based GUI that automates file sharing between two computers on the internet. But this solution also has its issues, as it requires that at least the sending party has a Dropbox account. Installing Dropbox software is not actually required, since Dropbox also provides a web interface for uploading and downloading files. At the time of the comic's publication, Dropbox was still relatively new and unknown, thus why it is not Cueball's first suggestion.

While Cueball is still explaining Dropbox, the friend's cousin has copied the file to a USB drive and physically transported it to the friend's house, circumventing the Internet entirely. It's not an elegant solution, but sometimes traditional methods are the most efficient ways to get something done.

When used to transfer files between computers in the same room or building, this same approach is referred to as sneakernet. This comic is also an illustration of what Andy Tanenbaum said in 1989: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway. Sneakernet was examined in this What If article.

Tim Berners-Lee developed the HTTP protocol, the HTML markup language and the first web browser. Therefore he is considered to be the inventor of the World Wide Web. He envisioned originally an interactive web, where it would have been possible for the users to change a website directly using the browser, which would have made it possible to upload a file directly to a webpage:

Tim Berners-Lee's original vision of the Web involved a medium for both reading and writing. In fact, Berners-Lee's first web browser, called WorldWideWeb, could both view and edit web pages (from Wikipedia WebDAV).

In contrast to this, a static web ("Web 1.0") came alive, which developed then later to the interactive "Web 2.0" we know today. Wikis like this website, where the page content is editable via forms, are a perfect example for this "emulated interactivity". From the technical point of view, the webpage is still static and the browser is just a viewer for html pages with the limited possibility to send some form data to the server. Scripts on the server, which process this form data, then change the web page. This mechanism is a more complicated work-around for what Tim Berners-Lee originally planned. Dropbox and the web interfaces of email providers are further examples of this "emulated interactivity". The title text assumes, that Tim Berners-Lee feels probably generally sad, that his invention developed into this unnecessary complicated way and misusing emails (maybe even via the web interface of email providers) for file sharing is therefore especially painful for what could have been so simple.


[Cueball stands near a computer, talking on the phone to another person.]
Cueball: You want your cousin to send you a file? easy. He can email it to- ...Oh, it's 25 MB? Hmm...
Cueball: Do either of you have an FTP server? No, right.
Cueball: If you had web hosting, you could upload it...
Cueball: Hm. We could try one of those MegaShareUpload sites, but they're flaky and full of delays and porn popups.
Cueball: How about AIM Direct Connect? Anyone still use that?
Cueball: Oh, wait, Dropbox! It's this recent startup from a few years back that syncs folders between computers. You just need to make an account, install the-
Cueball: Oh, he just drove over to your house with a USB drive?
Cueball: Uh, cool, that works too.
[Caption below the panel:]
I like how we've had the internet for decades, yet "sending files" is something early adopters are still figuring out how to do.


This comic has a resemblance to both 1810: Chat Systems and 2194: How to Send a File

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About three years ago, I stumbled across this comic during an xkcd re-read, and I immediately thought "Hey, the small business I work for could make GREAT use of Dropbox!" Today, my boss says that bringing Dropbox to her business is one of the best ideas I've ever had. Boct1584 (talk) 01:22, 5 May 2017 (UTC)

Dropbox suxx because exist several E2EE for privacy cloud storage, or NextCloud can be selfhosted. 19:56, 18 December 2023 (UTC)

Years ago the usb drive was a floppy disc and the transfer was called "sneaker net". This "solution" is much, much older than the web. Also, why would TBL shed a tear? What's an HTML server got to do with file sharing? Do you think Randall meant Tommy Flowers? -- ‎ (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

You are right. I deleted the sentence about Tim Berners-Lee, because the comic shows a perfectly legitimate use of the internet: transferring a 25 Mb file, which is much complicated than it should be. Xhfz (talk) 21:00, 10 October 2013 (UTC)
He wasn't really right, and the title text should still be explained. I have done so. 20:35, 21 January 2014 (UTC)

Just split the file into two pieces and send them in two emails. 10:29, 3 August 2013 (UTC)

With a chisel? Not everybody has a chisel around the house, these days. 20:35, 21 January 2014 (UTC)

Actually Dropbox has a web interface, you don't need to download any program. Still, both need to have Dropbox account. --JakubNarebski (talk) 15:41, 13 December 2013 (UTC)

Yes. Yes, you do. 20:35, 21 January 2014 (UTC)

Guys, dropbox supports link-sharing, for users without an account. Although, that feature probably wasn't around at the time this comic was written. 02:46, 1 March 2014 (UTC)

Although those neccessarily need either a password or are just kinda insecure because it's on the open internet. 12:53, 30 July 2022 (UTC)

Duke: I THINK that the TIM BERNERS LEE part is not just to do with the protocols. If you had to send it to your friend's laptop , you *could* mail it your friends email id rather than to yourself, essentially using the email service in the *right* manner. 07:27, 15 August 2014 (UTC)

After all these years I stumbled only now upon this note in Wikipedia's WebDAV article:
Tim Berners-Lee's original vision of the Web involved a medium for both reading and writing. In fact, Berners-Lee's first web browser, called WorldWideWeb, could both view and edit web pages.
So Tim Berners-Lee was imaging an interactive web when he invented html and http, instead of the static "web 1.0", which came alive. In his envisioned web, people probably would have uploaded a file to a webpage directly, instead of using the web-interfaces of email providers or services like Dropbox, which are complicated work-arounds to achieve the same thing. Enkidu (talk) 11:58, 24 February 2021 (UTC)

Hah, now we have darkhttp. Just download and install (a matter of seconds), execute (give root-of-to-share folder) and forward the ports on your router (2mins max). This should be rather easy :-). Alternatives could be also tftp etc. Or send something via GDrive^^ 10:11, 12 May 2015 (UTC)

"forward the ports on your router" isn't "2mins max" if your ISP puts its residential subscribers behind carrier-grade network address translation. For many, the only way out from behind CGNAT is to lease a static IP, and even for that, some ISPs require a commercially zoned service address. --Tepples (talk) 16:17, 17 October 2017 (UTC)

I'm surprised they didn't just use bittorrent. It's such a simple and easy way to transfer files. -- The Cat Lady (talk) 00:23, 23 August 2021 (UTC)

True as it ever was. My grandfather was sending someone an MP3 of a radio show. Too large for email, WeTransfer wouldn't work, GDrive upload failed, ended up putting it on a USB stick and posting. -- 22:40, 23 August 2023 (UTC)

Tell your grandparents they can use simple anonymous filesharing website even E2EE for privacy: https://geekflare.com/secure-file-sharing/ — perhaps File.Pizza is the best for extralarge files because of P2P. 19:56, 18 December 2023 (UTC)