The proper MHTML syntax

October 3rd, 2010. Tagged: CSS, IE, images, performance

Reducing the number of HTTP requests is a must, sprites are cool, but a pain to maintain, so there come data URIs (for all browsers) and MHTML (IE6 and 7). I've talked about these things on this blog to a point where the blog comes up in top 10 results in search engines for queries like "mhtml" and "data url". Therefore I think it's my duty to clarify a point for the good of the mankind :)

MHTML works in IE6 and IE7 even in the deadly IE7/Vista and IE7/Win7 combos

In the community we've long considered MHTML in IE7/Vista a problem and I've personally come up with complex voodoo workarounds how to mitigate the issue and still make use of the technique. Turns out the whole problem all the time was a small syntax glitch.

Pointed by a comment at a previous post all we ever needed was to close the boundary delimiter and add two dashes at the end. The double-dash of doom as I like to call them since I've spent so much time wrestling.

So let's take a look at the syntax.

Update: Also check this comment for additional insight from Vincent, Aaron and _cphr_ regarding double line break of doom

One part

MHTML is a multi-part document. One document containing several parts. One part looks like this:

Content-Location: myimage
Content-Transfer-Encoding: base64

iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSU....U5ErkJggg==

In other words it has headers, base64-encoded content and two empty lines to divide them.

Multi parts

The different parts in the document are divided by a separator string. And at the top of the document you define what this separator is. Anything you like. So

Content-Type: multipart/related; boundary="MYSEPARATOR"

--MYSEPARATOR

[here comes part one]

--MYSEPARATOR

[here's part two]

--MYSEPARATOR--

Did you notice -- at the very end? Yes, this is the double-dash of doom. Forget it and you get IE7/Vista problems (only on cached documents) and permanent hair loss. The thing is that in IE6 and other IE7s you can omit the whole last separator and it's all good. So historically you never needed it, but come Vista and Win7 and problems start.

All together now

Finally, let's see the whole thing, a whole CSS file, including the way you refer to the parts later on in the CSS.

/*
Content-Type: multipart/related; boundary="MYSEPARATOR"
 
--MYSEPARATOR
Content-Location: myimage
Content-Transfer-Encoding: base64
 
iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAABgAAAAYCAMAAADXqc3KAAAD....U5ErkJggg==

--MYSEPARATOR
Content-Location: another
Content-Transfer-Encoding: base64
 
iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAABgAAAAYCAMAAADXqc3KAAAA....U5ErkJggg==

--MYSEPARATOR--
*/
.myclass {
    background-image:url(mhtml:http://example.org/styles.css!myimage);
}
.myotherclass {
    background-image:url(mhtml:http://example.org/styles.css!another);
}

Updated PHP class

Previously when I fought IE7/Vista I came up with a PHP class that would take some images and create "data sprites" on the fly, creating two different versions - one with data URIs and one with MHTML, depending on the browser. The old code is here.

Now, I've updated it (basically just deleted serious portions of it that dealt with Vista) and put it up on github. Right here.

Updated test pages

Thanks for reading, that's about it. Now off I go to correct the older posts, catch ya later :)

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