META files for HTML + XML encoding happiness

There has been all sorts of trouble with web developers being unable to cause their web servers to issue the correct Content-type headers. Most recent fallout was Mark Pilgrim's essay on

The problem

Suppose I have several HTML files, some in ISO 8859-1 and the newer ones saved as UTF-8. How do I arrange for my web server to serve them tagged as text/html; charset=ISO8859-1 and text/html; charset=UTF-8 respectively?

Most web servers guess the media-type based on the file name suffix (so .htmltext/html, and so on). I have seen sites where different suffixes are used for different encodings (index.htm8), but that seems kind of a kludge. You could mandate the server to parse the file looking for meta tags with attribute http-equiv="content-type", but that presumes that the server can understand subtleties of HTML parsing, and it will take up extra resources on the server.

To address this problem I am proposing a simple resource format called META (for metadata).

The format (which I shall not define in detail here) is essentially the same as RFC 822 headers:

Content-type: text/html; charset=ISO8859-1
Title: My plan for world peace

Processors should scan this file considered as an octet-sequence (i.e., as bytes, not characters), in the fashion mandated by MIME and RFC 822 and the rest. Keywords are therefore always US-ASCII. The permitted keywords include:

  • Content-type, the MIME media type, with parameters;
  • Title: the title to use for this resource; and
  • Link: links to other documents, with rel, title, type attributes corresponding to the HTML equivalents.

The point of the META is that it is very simple and it can be used to supply the correct MIME content-type header. I am assuming that if I (or my web-page editing program) can I upload peace-plan.html to my web server, I can
also upload peace-plan.meta.

META-savvy Web servers use the META files associated with a resource to tell them how to serve said resources. This should not be too hard; code for scanning RFC-822 headers exists and is available as a library for most platforms.

As a convenience, they might, if the file-specific metadata file is missing, look for html.meta in (a) the directory that the HTML file is in, and (b) in a server-wide set of defaults. (Obviously these META files should not contain titles.) There might be operating-system-specific options, such as
resource forks on HFS+ file systems.

This implies two file-system accesses per request, at least the first time a file is served. I would suggest that the META files are small enough that caching them (or the information extracted from them) should not be difficult. Servers could also 'compile' metadata ahead of time in to an in-memory database.

Application outside of HTML and HTTP

This is not intended to be limited to HTML files; on the contrary, METAs are are designed to be format-neutral:

Content-type: image/jpeg
Title: Kittens and string
Link: <kitten46.jpg>; rel=next
Link: <kitten44.jpg>; rel=prev

Pictures can have titles, and links (I was going to link to the HTTP/1.1 definition of Link and Title, but then discovered that HTTP/1.1 does not have them any more! The syntax above is modelled on the examples in HTML 4.0 §14.6.)

The web server thus does not have to understand JPEG text annotations to serve JPEGs with metadata; on the other hand, a separate program might be used to scan JPEGs for metadata and spit out META files for the server to absorb.

On the file system

All the above is not restricted to web servers. When one opens a document by double-clicking in your file browser, it should be able to use META information to decide how to display the file. This might go some what to reduce the annoyance caused when the GUI's understanding of file-types is wrong.

There is the worry that now there are two files where once there was one -- won't those hapless users get them confused, split them up, delete one and not the other, forget to copy both of them, etc.? Actally HTML documents already have this problem, since all their included images, CSS files, and so on are also separate files. Microsoft have gone to great lengths to address this problem by adding extra complexity to Windows Explorer -- all the extra files go in a specially named directory that the Explorer windows may hide from you and may copy about automatically. There are some obvious alternatives if you really want to treat a collection of HTML pages as a single document:

  • treat a specially named directory of HTML pages in a fashion similar to an application directory (app dirs are a concept used in ROX, called an application bundles in Mac OS X);
  • combine HTML and its resources as MIME multipart/related with a document file name ending .mht (in this case the META resources might be folded in with the MIME headers);
  • combine HTML and its resources as a ZIP archive (like a JAR or WAR).

Applicability to XML served as text/xml

This also would permit XML to use text/xml as a media-type:

Content-type: text/xml; charset=ISO8859-7
Title: =?ISO-8859-7?B?...greek text...?=

The web server does not have to be XML-savvy to generate correct headers; it only needs to understand the META file and then serve the file unaltered. In many cases the META file can be dropped in to the HTTP headers unaltered.

If XML files did not have the encoding pseudo-attribute in the <?xml...?> pseudo-processing-instruction at the start, then transcoding would now be a non-issue: a transcoding proxy server transcodes the character data and rewrites the MIME content-type, neither of which are XML-specific. A program that transcodes a file on disc must also know to locate and alter the META file, but, again, this is not an XML-specific task. (These utilities might have to be written specially for your XML work, but would be generally applicable.)

I do not want to dismiss lightly the clever scheme the XML committee came up with for having a file describe its own encoding in a standard way. But, speaking purely in the context of counterfactual historical fiction, I do think that there would have been advantages to instead taking the following approach:

  • Create a separate RFC for the META files outlined in this note and recommend it as best practice foe web servers;
  • Insist that XML files be processed as character data, with the encoding specified via a META file, or HTTP or MIME headers, or application-specific and operating-system-specific alternatives (such as command-line arguments, Windows' use of byte-order marks to distinguish MCBS and UTF-16 files, and Mac OS resources);
  • Forbid a document from referring to its own encoding.

The intention being to oblige applications to handle character encodings and media-types properly in general, rather than working around their existing failings in a fashion that works for XML only.