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Re: MathML and the Dream of Math on the Web

From: Robert Miner <RobertM@dessci.com>
Date: Tue, 22 Oct 2002 11:30:30 -0500
Message-Id: <200210221630.LAA25094@wisdom.geomtech.com>
To: ping@zesty.ca
CC: www-math@w3.org


Ka-Ping Yee wrote:

> Why am I raising these frustrations with MathML in a public forum?
> Because I see a dream being forgotten.  I would not be so compelled
> to speak up if it were only me suffering because of MathML.  But it's
> more serious than that: *everyone* suffers.  And the ones who suffer
> most are the ones that need it the most.
> [snip]
> The dream was that, one day, you would be able to express math in Web
> documents about as easily as text, and that it would be simple enough
> to read and write for anyone who understood math.  And I mean everyone:
> young, old, rich, poor, elementary or graduate student, schoolteacher,
> professor, sighted, blind, and so on.  It had to just *work* the way
> HTML (mostly) just worked.  

The dream is not forgotten.  I can see how you might think that, and I
very much respect your passion in defending it.  But unsurprisingly, I
have a different viewpoint.

To my way of thinking, the single most important and difficult step to
achieving your vision for a universal, effective, free infrastructure
for scientific documents is political.  Unless a technology achieves
political buy-in from major software suppliers, it will not be able to
have a broad-based impact.  To put it another way, the technical
details of a math on the web solution don't really matter if it
doesn't get implemented and deployed widely.

I have seen many cool technologies, MINSE among them, that offer an
elegant solution to parts of the math on the web problem.  However,
because of various reasons, they have not been pursuasive to the
dominant industry players, don't get political buy-in, and ultimately
have little impact.  One might like to pretend that buy-in from the
dominant industry players is not necessary to empower everyone in the
way you describe.  But the evidence very strongly suggests this isn't
the case.

You say the dream is slipping away, but I see very different signs:

1) MathML support is now available for free in Netscape and Internet

2) MathML is supported in several major computer algebra systems.

3) MathML support is available and improving in widely distributed
   authoring tools, including the ones that in fact most students and
   school teachers use if you believe surveys.

4) Major scientific publishers are either in the process of
   incorporating MathML into their work flows or are seriously
   considering it.

5) MathML has been incorporated into other important standardized
   markup languages, such a Docbook.

6) Serious attention is being given to MathML as a means of increasing
   accessibility to technical documents, as is underscored by a recent
   posting to this list.

Note that compared to other math encoding schemes and math on the web
technologies (of which there are quite a number, including several
that have been around for decades) this is a list of accomplishments
without peer.

Now, I will be (and recently have been) accused of being a foil for
corporate interests, but here is the point: These achievements
indicate MathML is steadily making *political* inroads in pursuading
major content and software providers to agree on and use and
infrastructure for math on the web.  And that is the all-important
consideration.  With such an infrastructure, even if it has some warts
from a technical viewpoint, it may be possible to realize your
vision for empowering people to communicate about technical things.
Without it, there is no hope whatsoever.

For argument sake, say that MINSE is in fact a compelling, robust,
easy-to-use solution for math on the web that you believe it to be.
To me, the fact that MINSE doesn't have a similar list of
accomplishments strikes me as evidence that my assertion that it is
politics and not technology that ultimately governs what will make an
impact is valid.  

Of course, I accept that you may have a different interpretation.  But
to me, it seems very clear that if a technology fails to get political
buy-in from major content and software providers, then no matter what,
it isn't going to do much for the poor school teachers and blind
students, and so on. Of course, a technology that does get political
buy-in may or may not help the disenfranchised of the world.  But at
least if the infrastucture is there, there is a fighting chance.


Dr. Robert Miner                                RobertM@dessci.com
MathML 2.0 Specification Co-editor                    651-223-2883
Design Science, Inc.   "How Science Communicates"   www.dessci.com
Received on Tuesday, 22 October 2002 12:31:13 UTC

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