MHTML – when you need data: URIs in IE7 and under

April 10th, 2009. Tagged: CSS, IE, images, performance

UPDATE: It's very important to have a closing separator in the MHTML document, otherwise there are known issues in IE7 on Vista or Windows 7. The details are here.

In the previous post I described what data: URIs are and how they are useful to reduce the number of HTTP requests. Now, the problem with data: URIs is that they are not supported by IE < 8. But, thanks to this article (in Russian), here's a way to work around that limitation: using MHTML for IE7 and under.


MHTML is MIME HTML, or if you insist on me spelling it out completely is like "Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions HyperText Markup Language". In short it's HTML but like email with attachments. In one "multipart" email you can have several... hm, things - HTML version of the email, text-only version, attachment, another attachment...

MHTML is the same but for HTML. In one file you put a bunch of stuff (e.g. image files) and you save on the precious HTTP requests.

MHTML example

Let's check out an example. The HTML is actually not important, it's the CSS where we'll stick all our inline images. Once with data: sheme for all normal browsers and once with the mhtml: scheme for IE before 8.

The overall "template" would look like so:

Content-Type: multipart/related; boundary="_ANY_SEPARATOR"
#myid {
  /* normal browsers */
  background-image: url("data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0[...snip...]");
  /* IE < 8 targeted with the star hack */
  *background-image: url(mhtml:!somestring); 

The multipart stuff goes into a CSS comment. You then use data: URI scheme for all normal browsers. Then you use the star hack to target IE browsers before 8. For these browsers you give the URL of the CSS, exclamation and then a string that uniquely identifies the desired "part" in the multipart comment. Simple, eh? Didn't think so, but hey, it's not exactly rocket science.

Demo example with more parts

Check out a demo page that has two "parts" in the multipart MHTML comment.

The HTML is noting special and the CSS goes like:

Content-Type: multipart/related; boundary="_ANY_STRING_WILL_DO_AS_A_SEPARATOR"
#test1 {
  background-image: url("data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAAAQAAAADCAIAAAA7ljmRAAAAGElEQVQIW2P4DwcMDAxAfBvMAhEQMYgcACEHG8ELxtbPAAAAAElFTkSuQmCC"); /* normal */
  *background-image: url(mhtml:!locoloco); /* IE < 8 */
#test2 {
  background-image: url("data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAABkAAAAUBAMAAACKWYuOAAAAMFBMVEX///92dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnZ2dnYvD4PNAAAAD3RSTlMAACTkfhvbh3iEewTtxBIFliR3AAAAUklEQVQY02NgIBMwijgKCgrAef5fkHnz/y9E4kn+/4XEE6z/34jEE///A4knev7zAwQv7L8RQk40/7MiggeUQpjJff+zIpINykbIbhFSROIRDQAWUhW2oXLWAQAAAABJRU5ErkJggg=="); /* normal */
  *background-image: url(mhtml:!polloloco); /* IE < 8 */
div {
  width: 100px;
  height: 100px;
  font: bold 24px Arial;


In addition to the drawbacks of data: URIs (bigger CSS, small CSS change invalidates your cached inline images), this method has the obvious drawback that the inline images are repeated twice. But sometimes... a person's gotta do what a person's gotta do ;)

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