little green footballs

Tech Note: The "Email an Article" Makeover, Now Mobile-Friendly

Tue, Jan 17, 2017 at 2:10:41 pm

Image via Shutterstock

In the past few days I've been working on a part of the LGF site that's been woefully neglected for too long: our "Email an Article" feature, which you get to by clicking the little envelope icon below each article -- the one that looks like this:

Would you believe this code hasn't been seriously worked on for 10 years?

In a way it's kind of cool that it was still functional despite the lack of attention, but with the advent of mobile devices it really started to show its age. The idea of the feature is to send a nicely formatted HTML email that contains most of the article, with images and links and all that good stuff. (It also includes an alternate non-HTML version for people who don't want HTML in their emails.)

But on mobile devices, this HTML code was ... well ... less than optimal. Not perfect. Oh, let's face it, it sucked. On some mobile devices it looked OK, but was shrunken down to an unreadable tiny size because it wasn't scaled to the mobile screen. On other mobile devices it looked flat out awful, because they didn't support CSS properly, or a myriad of other reasons.

The thing about mobile HTML email is that it's a real nightmare to code, with so many devices out there, each with its own quirks and bugs. That's one reason why I hadn't done much with the code for a long time, because it was a daunting task.

But I'm pleased to announce that I recently discovered an open source framework called MJML that makes all of these compatibility headaches disappear like magic. Instead of writing the HTML directly, you code it with MJML's custom tags first, then compile it to the special HTML that works in emails. Here's a sample of what the MJML code looks like:

<mjml>
   <mj-head>
     <mj-title>Hello MJML</mj-title>
   </mj-head>
   <mj-body>
     <mj-container>
       <mj-section>
         <mj-column>
           <mj-text>
             Hello World!
           </mj-text>
         </mj-column>
       </mj-section>
     </mj-container>
   </mj-body>
 </mjml>

The MJML framework gives us a vastly improved "Email an Article" feature that looks great on almost any mobile device or desktop computer. The HTML version now scales beautifully to fit the screen size of whatever device you're using to view it, and it works even with the most troublesome email clients (I'm looking at you, Microsoft Outlook). And as a bonus, our emails now include links to share the articles to Facebook and Twitter.

I always like to end these Tech Notes with a tip for programmers, so here's something I figured out while working with MJML that wasn't obvious and wasn't in their documentation.

Since I use PHP to generate the email for this feature, I build the MJML code as a string. The official docs for MJML only describe how to compile the code from a file on disk and write the resulting code back to the disk, but this seemed like way too much overhead. So I worked out a way to use PHP to pass a string into the MJML compiler and get back a string of compiled HTML code. And here it is:

<?php
$mjml = '[[ MJML CODE HERE ]]';
$html = trim(
	shell_exec(
		'echo -n ' . escapeshellarg($mjml) . ' | mjml -i -s -m'
	)
);
?>

This uses PHP's shell_exec command to pipe the MJML string to the MJML command line compiler, and return the compiled code in the variable $html. The trim command is in there just in case there's some white space at the beginning or end of the compiled code.