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Re: The disappointment and embarrassment of MathML (update)

From: Walter T. Stephens <ceramist@worldnet.att.net>
Date: Tue, 18 Apr 2000 01:29:01 -0500
Message-ID: <004601bfa8ff$65359340$37994b0c@thecomputer>
To: <www-math@w3.org>
Cc: "Thomas Cool" <cool@dataweb.nl>, <timbl@w3.org>
While not trying to further the cloud the argument, I believe there are some
missing features to this discussion that may lend some clarity.

MathML and Mathematica (or Maple, MathCAD, REDUCE, etc., etc.) are not
similar items that can be compared.  The proper discussion on MathML should
follow a similar argument from many years ago when the WWW first became
popular with Mosaic.  The basic discussion was to decide how a user would
view a web page.  The question was between using a text editing/rendering
program, such as MSWord or WordPerfect, with their proprietary data format
or to have a separate but new Web renderer, such as Mosaic, and the then new
text format HTML.  The conclusion was that using proprietary software and
their data format would require all users to purchase and communicate with
commercial level software that was not easily edited or rendered by other
programs in the future.  HTML defined a text based standard that all current
and future text editors and renders could choose to support but would free
all users from buying any additional software.  The entire WWW population
could view HTML web pages with simple free browsers, edit the page in simple
ASCII text editor, and have support in all current and future software.

This same issue has now risen with regards to MathML.  In simple terms,
MathML like HTML allows anyone to author and render mathematics on the web.
However, there is nothing to say that Mathematica or other packages, free or
commercial, are not needed.  Computer algebra programs will become more
useful when people can communicate their results, independent of the
authoring environment, across the web.  One can envision saving a
Mathematica file or copying an equation into a MathML format and posting it
onto a web page.  Another user can then take that expression and insert it
into a their desired working environment.  Not everyone wants to purchase
Mathematica (no offense to WRI) so using Mathematica is not a valid short
term solution.  This is similar to the argument of using MSWord files for
web pages: it sounds good but not everyone wants to buy the commercial
package just to read someone's report and there are other users who like
their text editing software.

As a short term solution, many people render mathematics as GIF or JPEG
images on their web pages.  While a practical short term solution, there are
extended benefits to having access to the actual data in the mathematical
expression such as content searching, data manipulation, language
translation, and expression evaluation.  Translators from TeX and other
presentation based formats into HTML or DHTML greatly increase the degree
data access.  The advent of XML/XSL technology will complete the separation
of the data format and the rendering environment in all future applications.
People will develop new concepts for working with complex ideas and then use
current rendering software to enable users to access these new concepts.  As
their new ideas gain importance or recognized use, developers will deliver
better authoring environments suited to the underlying data format such as
shown when the HTML authoring moved from a simple text editor to more visual
WYSIWYG based programs.  One can even go further back in computing history
and discuss the development of the ASCII data set for text files.  Different
developers could have encoded text with a different character set for the
256 possible values.  Instead a standard was developed to communicate simple
text between programs resulting in a great many more free and commercial
text applications that were delivered to all users.  When a standard does
not exist, the user can sometimes be held captive to single source providers
that charge high fees in order to maintain access to their data each year.
In both the short and long term, standards empower freedom and advancement
of data access and content and create opportunities for economic competition
between developers leading to a better product for the user.

As for some concerns about the complexity of MathML syntax compared to
Mathematica, the proper comparison is between MathML and the data structure
of a Mathematica file.  No one would want to type a Mathematica file by hand
and such is the same for MathML.  For any MathML authoring environment, I
would believe that typing "(a+b)^2" from the keyboard will be clearly
understood.  The user does not necessarily need to understand or be aware of
the data format since authoring and rendering environments will drive toward
compliant user interfaces and away from cumbersome techniques as the user
base increases.  With regards to the verbosity of MathML and more generally
XML/SGML, I would state that new advanced markup languages will be coming
later with more features and enhanced data constructs.  But let's just use
XML/SGML for now since it's a good solution in the short run.

Could MathML be better? Without a doubt but the math using community will
have a good start with MathML.  I enjoyed the initial web pages using basic
HTML years ago knowing that the future would bring better and better
features.  I should not need to purchase an entire commercial package to
enjoy and learn about new mathematical concepts and ideas.  As the
implementation of mathematics on the web advances, having a mathematics
standard such as MathML will allow all users and developers to work,
complete, and communicate in this exciting area.

Walter T. Stephens, Ph.D.
Received on Tuesday, 18 April 2000 02:29:40 UTC

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