949: File Transfer

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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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 25MB file. Most people know how to use email to send files through the internet, but 25MB 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 a accessible directory and sending the link to the desired recipient.

Megaupload was one of many sites on the internet that recognizes 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 an easy to use program with an intuitive GUI that automates file sharing between two computers on the internet, just like one might wish for. But this solution also has its issues, as it requires both users to have a Dropbox account, then install the software or plugin, and so on.

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 brute force is the most efficient way 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.

Tim Berners-Lee is considered to be the inventor of the internet. In the title text, Randall implies that he would be disturbed by the need today to use two separate protocols (email and http) to perform a third, unrelated, obvious function such as file transfer.


[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.
I like how we've had the internet for decades, yet "sending files" is something early adopters are still figuring out how to do.

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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)

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)

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)