|B.1 The MIME Content Type
B.2 Multipart MIME messages
B.3 How Servers Determine Content Type
B.4 How Browsers Determine Content Type
B.5 Browser Handling of Content Types
|Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) is the part of the Internet mail system
that allows for multimedia electronic mail. MIME mechanisms are also used on the Web to
define the type of a piece of data (e.g., text/html) and to send complex multipart
messages (messages with multiple parts) via HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Thus,
every Web expert should understand the basics of the MIME mechanisms and how they are
integrated into Web server operation and Web application design. The aim of this appendix
is to provide this basic knowledge.
The original Internet mail message protocol, defined
in RFC 822, was designed with text mail messages in mind. A mail message was defined as a
block of plain text preceded by specially defined headers specifying routing or other
information about the message (for example, where the message was from, who it was being
sent to, who copies were sent to, etc.). This specification said little about the format
of the message content. At the time (which was not that long ago!), electronic mail
messages were plain text files, so that concerns about the format of content were
unwarranted. My, how things have changed!
Today there is enormous demand for electronic mail that can deliver messages containing
components such as HyperText Markup Language (HTML) text documents, image files, sound,
and even video data, in addition to regular text. However, such messages can be widely
communicated only if all mail handling programs share a standard for constructing,
encoding, and transporting such complex, multipurpose messages.
MIME provides this common standard. MIME defines, as an extension of the original mail
protocol (defined in RFC 822), an extensible format for including multimedia components
within a mail message. Thus, MIME defines how to code the content, while RFC 822 specifies
how to package the message and get it to its destination. MIME defines several document
headers, placed inside the document, that specify such things as the nature of a message
(multipart or single part), how the message parts are separated, the data content of each
part, and the encoding scheme used to encode each part. The following sections summarize
those features that are most important for Web applications. This is only a brief summary,
however; for details you are referred to the relevant documentation (RFC 2045 through
2049, and others) listed at the end of this appendix.
Of primary importance is the MIME content-type header. This should be familiar
from elsewhere in the book, since this is the same header used to indicate the type of
data being transferred using the HTTP protocol (see Chapter 9). Whenever a client requests
a document from an HTTP server, the server first determines the type of the document, and
then sends the appropriate content type ahead of it. For example, if the file contains
AIFF audio data, the server must send back the content-type header field:
Similarly, when a client browser uses the HTTP POST method to send data to a server,
the data is preceded by an HTTP header that contains a
content-type field to
tell the server the format of the data being sent. The two supported types for POSTed form
How do content-type headers work? Each header has a minimum of two parts, giving
the generic data type and also a specific subtype. The syntax is:
The MIME specification defines
type to be image, audio,
text, video, application, multipart, message, or x-arbitrary-name
(these names, as with the string content-type, are case insensitive). The
meanings of the first four are obvious, and indicate the overall type of the data. The
type is for other data (perhaps binary) that needs to be processed in a special way. This
could be a program to run, or perhaps a PostScript or PDF document to be displayed by a
PostScript or PDF viewer.
Multipart indicates a message containing more than
one part, while
message refers to an old-fashioned RFC 822 plain text e-mail
X-arbitrary-name (i.e., any name beginning with the string
called an extension token, and refers to experimental data types. This lets
youor anyone elsecreate special MIME type names that do not conflict with
established ones. There are, in fact, many "experimental" MIME types in common
use on the Web.
Two new basic types were recently introduced.
World is used for Virtual
Reality Markup Language (VRML) data and for 2D/3D data sets used for generating 3D views,
chemical is designed for communicating information about chemical
models and structures. Both of these are also commonly still seen using the
"experimental" type names
type/subtype string, the
subtype defines a
specific type of datafor example, a specific type of text data or audio data. Thus,
means text that is HTML data,
text/xml means that it is eXtensible Markup
Language (XML) data, (
application/postscript indicates PostScript data, and
so on. There are lots of content types: Table B.1 lists those that are particularly
important in Web applications. A more complete list is found at
www.iangraham.org/books/xhtml2/appb/mimetypes.html. Subtypes can also be experimental
extension types, such as the
x-www-form-urlencoded subtype shown previously.
||TYPICAL FILE NAME EXTENSIONS
||Plain (non-marked-up) text
||Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)
||VBScript program code
||Multipart-encoded data from an HTML form
|Uniform Resource Locator (URL)-
encoded data from an HTML
||Binary data of unknown type
Note that, because of the nature of the HTTP client-server interaction, there are many
content types used by Web applications that are not used in electronic mail, and vice
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Any text (i.e., MIME types beginning with text/) can take an optional charset
parameter to specify both the character set and character set encoding used to create the
text dataits no use receiving data representing text if the receiver does not
know the relationship between the bytes and the desired characters. The format for
including this parameter is
Content-Type: text/subtype; charset=char_set_name
subtype is the text subtype (e.g.,
char_set_name is a name that indicates the
character set and character set encoding used in the document. Note how the semicolon (;)
text/subtype field from the
parameter. Some possible values are US-ASCII and ISO 8859-1 (ISO Latin-1) through 8859-9.
(See Appendix A for more information on character sets.) Web
applications often assume the ISO Latin-1 character set by default if this parameter is
Of particular interest are charset values associated with the UCS (Unicode) character
set. This character set is defined as the base character set for both XML and HTML, and
the current Web specifications recommend distributing newer HTML documents using this
character set and one of the supported encodings. (This means that any character reference
in an XML or HTML document, such as Γ, refers to the character at position 915 in
the UCS character set.) The two main encodings/charset values are UTF-16 (16-bit encoding
of UCS; each character stored in 2 bytes) or UTF-8 (8-bit encoding of UCS; characters
stored in 1 to 6 bytes), with UTF-8 being the recommended choice for most cases.
Some browsers, such as Netscape Navigator 4 and Internet Explorer 4, can handle these
character sets. Unfortunately, a computer cannot display the desired characters unless you
(the user) explicitly add the relevant character sets fonts to your
machinemost machines do not come with built-in Unicode fonts.
Older browsers do not understand
charset parameters. At present, many older
browsers (Navigator 3 and earlier, Internet Explorer 3 and earlier) cannot properly
content-type headers containing
and assume that all documents are encoded in ISO Latin-1.
Appendix A discusses character sets and encodings in more detail.
HTML Level Specification
In principle, the
text/html MIME type can take a
parameter. This optional parameter specifies the level of the HTML language used in the
document. For example,
Content-type: text/html; version=4.0; charset=utf-8
indicates that the data is encoded using UCS and the UTF-8 character encoding,
and that the HTML markup is consistent with the HTML 4.0 specification. This parameter is
largely unused by current Web applications, and can sometimes cause problems if present,
in the same manner as the
charset parameter discussed previously. In general,
it is safest to omit the
version parameter and instead use a DOCTYPE
declaration inside the actual HTML document to declare the version, as in:
<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01//EN"
...The head, body, etc. goes here...
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Multipart MIME messages play an important role in Web applications,
both for browser-to-Web server transactions and for sending/receiving
"Web-enabled" mail. The
multipart type defines how multiple data
parts can be included within a single message. These parts can be regular text files, HTML
data, or binary data (such as images). The multipart specification defines how these parts
are combined together, how binary data parts are encoded (i.e., stored as regular ASCII
characters, so that the data can be safely transmitted in a mail message), and how parts
can be referenced using special cid and mid URLs (discussed in Chapter 8).
In a multipart message, the different parts are placed in a single message, one after
the other, separated by a special divider. This divider or boundary is a text
string, defined in the messages multipart
content-type header field
that precedes the entire message. For example, for the
content type (which indicates a multipart message containing a collection of unrelated
parts of various types), the general form for the
content-type field is
Content-Type: multipart/mixed; boundary=separatorstring
separatorstringis a string of characters, guaranteed
never to appear elsewhere in the message, that is used to separate the message parts.
The boundaries between adjacent message parts are then simple text lines consisting of
that is, the boundary string preceded by two dash characters. This string is
followed by the
content-typedeclaration for the specific part, which is in
turn followed by a blank line containing only
CRLF (a carriage return and a
line feed character) to indicate the end of the headers and the start of the data. The end
of one part of the data and the beginning of the next part is indicated by another string
of the form
Finally, the end of the entire message is marked by the special string
which adds two hyphens at the end of the separator string to mark this as the
special boundary at the end of the message.
The following simple example outlines such a message, where the strings
denote the blank lines (containing only the carriage return and line feed characters) that
follow the headers and precede the data:
Content-type: multipart/mixed; boundary=23xx1211
.... html document data .(first "part" of the message)...
..... audio data ..... (second "part" of the message)....
This simple example omits several details, but illustrates the general approach. It
contains two parts: (1) a text file in HTML format, and (2) an audio file in AIFF format.
The MIME multipart header indicates that there is more than one component to the message,
and specifies the string used to divide the message parts.
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content-transfer-encoding field in the second part of this
message. This field indicates the mechanism used to encode the data included in the
message part. Thus this field,
means that the data is encoded using base64 encoding. This encoding mechanism,
defined in RFC 2045, essentially encodes any three adjacent bytes of binary data using 4
adjacent characters selected from a set of 65 "mail-friendly" ASCII characters.
This encoding ensures that the binary attachment can be sent via e-mail without risk of
the attachment being corrupted by intervening mail gateways.
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Three multipart MIME types are of particular relevance for Web applications. These are:
- This multipart model, introduced by Netscape with the Navigator 2.0 browser, is
discussed in Section 11.1.2 of Chapter 11. This type can be used to stream a continuous
series of data from a server to the browser. Because the browser understands that the
message is coming in multiple parts, it displays each part when that part arrives, with
the multipart divider string telling the browser where one part finishes and the next part
- The multipart specification is also crucial to the multipart/form-data type (defined in
RFC 1867see the references at the end of this appendix), developed to support the
uploading of complex form content, such as forms containing uploaded binary
data files, to HTTP servers. When a form element specifies the POST method along
with enctype="multipart/form-data", the data entered into the forms
input elements is encoded into distinct parts of a multipart message, each user input
element in the form giving rise to its own specific part. When the form is submitted, the
data is sent to the server as a single message of the type multipart/form-data.
particular that the presence in a form of an
.../> element forces the brower to use enctype="multipart/form-data",
since this is the only mechanism that can encode a file and send it as a part of the form.
- The multipart/related content type denotes a message containing parts that are related
one to another. A typical example is a mail message consisting of an HTML document, along
with all the images that appear inline in the document. In this case, the mail message
must contain all the parts, but must also support URLs that link between the parts, so
that the document can contain URLs referencing the images lying in the same message.
The specification for employing the third of these special types is found in the new
MHTML (MIME-HTML, or M-HTML) specification defined in RFC 2557. Figure B.1 illustrates one
case from this specification: Here, the
content-base header indicates the base
from which the document and its parts came. The browser uses this content base to locate
all the related parts, including the image file included as the second part of the
message. This mechanism is used by the Netscape Navigator 4 (and later) mail client when
composing HTML mail messages, and is now widely used by mail clients capable of creating
HTML-format mail messages.
An illustration of a simple multipart/related message containing an HTML document and a
related image file. Comments are in italics. Note how the JPEG image message part is
encoded using the base64 encoding.
regular mail headers .... (see RFC 822)
Content-Type: multipart/related; boundary="113101231231"; type=text/html
Content-Type: text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1
... here is the actual document, which contains reference to
the image file to be inlined when the document is displayed.
<IMG SRC="/images/ians-mug.jpeg" ALT="UGLY Picture!">
The browser uses the Content-base header to recognize that the
image is actually included below, in the next part of the document;
and so on -- a BASE64 encoded image ...
There are many other mechanisms allowed by the MHTML specification,
including the use of cid and mid URLs (see Chapter 8) to reference specific
parts within the message, or even specific parts within another mail message. See RFC 2557
(and also 2387) for details.
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For the server to be able to send a
content-type field in the header that
precedes the data, it must know the type of the data being returned. When a server is
returning data files stored on disk, this type is determined using conventions for the
file name suffixes, or extensionsservers generally assume that the suffix defines
the type of a document. For example, files with the suffix .mpeg are usually assumed to be
MPEG movies (video/mpeg), while files ending in .html are assumed to be HTML documents
(text/html), and so on. On some servers (historically, because of the three-character
filename extension limits imposed by the Windows 3.1 operating system), these suffixes are
often shortened to three letters; for example, .mpg for MPEG movies and .htm
for HTML documents.
The actual relationship between file name suffixes/extensions and MIME types is
configurable, and can be changed by modifying a servers configuration database or
files. Thus, when the server administrator defines a new type of data on a server, for
example Kodak Photo-CD images, he or she must define an extension to use for such files
(e.g., .pcd) and configure the server to associate the appropriate MIME type (e.g., image/x-photo-cd)
with this extension. The server administrator can also associate multiple extensions with
the same MIME type (e.g., .html and .htm, both corresponding to HTML documents). Of
course, it is then up to the author, when placing documents on the server, to ensure that
the documents use the extensions corresponding to each documents content.
Of course, if the data is being returned by a gateway program of some sort, then the
HTTP server does not know the type (a program can return practically anything). It is then
up to the program designer to return, via the gateway program, a proper content-type
header describing the data being returned. This issue is discussed in Chapter 10.
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If the server is returning a regular file, but does not know the type of a file (for
example, the file has no file name suffix, or the suffix has no entry in the content types
database), the server then assumes a default content-type value, often
However, this default can be changed to another value, and many servers are configured to
send unknown data out as MIME type
This corresponds to unidentified binary data a browser receiving data of this type
will generally prompt the user to ask what to do, typically giving the option of canceling
the download or saving the data file to disk.
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If a browser receives a file from an HTTP server, it is explicitly told the content
type by the servers response header. With File Transfer Protocol (FTP) or local file
access, this information is not available, and the browser must itself determineor
guess atthe file type. Again, this is done by the file name extension. To support
this, Web clients also maintain a database matching file name extensions to data types,
which is used in the absence of any other content-type information. In general, when new
software is loaded onto a computereither an independent application or a browser
plug-inthe operating system and the browser are automatically configured to know
about this new data type and to know what file name extensions correspond to this new type
The location of this database varies from browser to browser, but in most cases this
database can be accessed and modified from within the browser via pull-down menus.
A Web designer of course has no control over the browsers type database. Thus, if
you are developing content that is likely to be delivered using FTP or local file access,
be aware that some users may not be able to properly view the data. In this case you may
wish to explicitly identify the type of nonstandard data filesfor example, by adding
a text description of the type adjacent the link to the data.
INTERNET EXPLORER IGNORES SOME CONTENT/TYPE VALUES. When Internet Explorer 3, 4, or 5
receives data of MIME type text/plain, the browser checks the document to
see if it contains HTML markup tags. If it finds such tags, it ignores the actual MIME
type and treats the document as text/html. Thus, you cannot deliver an HTML document as
type text/plain if you want to let the user view the actual markup.
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When a browser receives data, it checks the MIME type to see if the browser itself can
view the indicated data type. If it cannot, it then looks for an alternative mechanism for
displaying the data. If the data was accessed via an anchor element, the browser checks to
see if there is a registered external application (a program separate from the browser, or
one that is available as a browser plug-in) designed to handle the indicated type of data.
If one is available, then the other program is started, and the data is passed to it for
In some cases, the user will be asked to confirm this procedure, particularly if there
are security implications associated with downloading and displaying the data. For
example, if the user downloads a Microsoft Word document, the browser (or Word plug-in)
may query the user about disabling Word macros or other avenues by which viruses or worms
can attack the local machine.
If there is no program or plug-in registered for the indicated type, then the browser
informs the user of its predicament and asks what it should do (save the file to disk,
cancel the download, etc.).
If the data is accessed as an embedded object (via embed or object
elements), the browser once again searches the users machine for an appropriate
plug-in module. If no appropriate plug-in is available, the browser informs the user of
the problem and asks the user what to do (save the file to disk, search the Web for an
appropriate plug-in, cancel the download, etc.). The embed element in particular
provides attributes (pluginspage, pluginsurl: see XHTML 1.0 Language and Design
Sourcebook, Section 17.1.6) by which the document author can specify a URL providing
information about appropriate plug-in software. A document author should always provide pluginspage
and plusingsurl attribute values to support those who do not have appropriate
plug-ins, and should also provide noembed element content to support browsers that
simply do not support the desired plug-in.
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B.5.1 Browser Sending Data to a Server
When a browser sends data (such as files included within a form using the input type="file"
upload mechanism) to a server, the browser will infer the MIME type for the attached file
from the local systems table of file name extensions. Thus, if the user uses a form
to upload the file testfile.doc, the browser will check to determine the type of
this file, and will add the appropriate MIME content type within the appropriate part of
the message sent to the server (for example, application/msword if a Microsoft Word
If the file name extension corresponds to no known type, then the browser will not
content-type header (Navigator 4 and earlier), or will use the
content-type: unknown (Navigator 5), or will assume the
text/plain (Internet Explorer 5.5 and earlier).
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