Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Web + Mathematics = ???

Me: Don't mention MathML.

You: What about MathML?

Me: I said, don't mention it! Don't. Just don't!

You: O...kay. Let's talk about what you got for Xmas.

Me: You know what the problem with MathML is?

You: I'm not allowed to mention ... that.

Me: Oh, don't you start! I'm fed up with software that doesn't deliver. MathML is a pain in the $#@! If it was supported properly, Maths and Science teachers everywhere would be putting stuff online faster than a Pommy cricketer can give up his wicket, but support for MathML sucks, plain and simple.

You: Why? (Oops, shouldn't have asked -- too late now.)

Me: Don't get me wrong, the concept is great. Have a markup language that browsers can use to display equations. It's a great idea. And Firefox does a pretty good job of rendering MathML. Obviously, so does Amaya. But for students and teachers to use it effectively, you need more than a couple of browsers that will display MML, you need tools that students can access at home as well as at school which allow you to easily create and edit mathematical expressions.

The problem is that those tools, while they exist, are not readily found "out there". Sure, I can say to my students, go home, download Amaya, here's the web address, you'll be able to look at MathML and make you own, but the response will be "Why do I have to work in a different browser, what's wrong with Internet Explorer?", at which point the battle is already lost for the most part. I could probably persuade them to give Firefox a go, many already use it, but for creating their own MathML stuff, what then? The W3C pages have a list of browser plugins and editors, but most of it is either dated or commercial, and students (and their parents) will not want to pay for software just so I can swap equations with them. MathCast is the best editor I've seen so far and it's the right price, but it's Windows only, and I have colleagues (and even some students) working on Macs (and I prefer to work in either Mac OS X or Ubuntu).

It shouldn't be this hard. The World Wide Web Consortium has established a standard, and while it could stand some improvement, it's workable. But most people use IE as their browser, and IE needs a plugin just to show MathML. Yes, the MathPlayer plugin from Design Science is free, but the reason for that is to get people to buy MathType. And creating MathML using MathType is ridiculously complicated, and assumes you are using MS Word. And ideally I want my students to not only be able to see equations in stuff I put online, but also to be able to post stuff up themselves in whatever wiki or blogging system we're using.

I repeat -- it shouldn't be this hard.

What we need is (a) for either Microsoft to make MathML support standard in Internet Explorer or for the rest of the planet to switch to Firefox (and I wouldn't hold my breath for either of these things happening); and (b) someone to develop a MathML editor that is
  • cross-platform (or has equivalents on each of Windows/Mac/Linux)
  • simple to use yet capable of handling the most complex equations
  • free

Or the other possibility is to have an application that uses either MathML or LaTeX markup to create image files of equations (like LaTeXiT does on Mac) but which also includes the markup in the image file (as XMP data?) so that another user, looking at the image in their browser, can open the image in their editor and it reads the markup and recreates the equation.

You: Why don't you build that yourself?

Me: If I knew how, I would!

(stops for breath)

Sorry for the rant.

You: Don't mention it!


Frédéric WANG said...

(a) More and more people use Firefox and are likely to discover MathML. This growth of Firefox has already made Microsoft react and produce a new version of Internet Explorer. I hope it would be the same for MathML.

(b) I also had this will some years ago and finally I decided to contribute to th development of Amaya that respects the three points you mentionned and espacially is "free" in the two senses of the term. I plane to improve the MathML interface again, but some of my work are already present in the last version.

Another interesting thing you forgot about MathML : http://search.mathweb.org/ but of course... I didn't mention it !

Bdidi said...

Thanks for the comment, Frédéric!
Are people likely to discover MathML and recognise it for what it is? Given that most of the equations you see at present on the web are pictures, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people on seeing MathML assume that it is just another image. That's if they see it - since Microsoft has seen fit to not add MathML support to IE7, I don't expect many people to see MathML in any case. Unless the tools for seeing and working with MathML are readily accessible, it's an up-hill battle.
Also, an image has some advantages - you can easily save an image, but you can't select a MathML equation in your browser and copy and paste it somewhere else. Students will find this frustrating. The more I think about it, the more I gravitate to the idea of an image with either MathML or LaTeX embedded in it.
Thanks for mentioning the search facility at MathWeb - I'd seen it once before, but didn't take a lot of notice at the time.

Paul Topping said...

Our FREE MathPlayer plugin for Internet Explorer provides great MathML support. Go to www.dessci.com/mathplayer.

Paul Topping
Design Science, Inc.

Bdidi said...

Thanks for replying, Paul.
Actually, I did mention MathPlayer in mu post, and it works really well, and thank goodness someone actually did something so MathML could be seen in IE, but my point is that the current situation as a whole is just too clunky - displaying equations is only half the picture (no pun intended); students also need tools to let them generate their own equations and/or manipulate the ones their teachers create and post online. And those tools should meet the criteria I spelled out before: cross-platform, easy to use, and free. Working with equations online should be as easy as working with text online. Until that's the case, web+maths=frustration.

Frédéric WANG said...

I disagree with your idea to use images. Coding formulae in MathML have severals advantages : you can zoom, easily copy and paste subexpressions, get a good layout in your browser and a good printing quality. I know there is a great lack of tools, but I don't think it is a reason to let it down.

Bdidi said...

Fair points, layout and printing especially. Don't get me wrong, I think the markup language approach makes a lot of sense, but the lack of tools is a major hurdle. Not being able to select an equation in the browser window, capture it and work with it (as you can with text and images) stymies the take-up of MathML.
The idea of images with embedded MathML or LaTeX is to take what usually happens now with Maths in web pages (plain GIFs or JPEGs) at least a step towards using MathML. Maybe someone would develop a plugin/method for FireFox so it would display the MathML instead of the image, but IE could at least show the image. These are just ideas -- if I were a better programmer, I'd do it myself, but I 'm not the man for the job; but if I keep throwing ideas and suggestions "out there", it might at least prompt somebody with the necessary skills to create something we can all benefit from. (Or am I being overly optimistic?)

Nathan Zamprogno said...

I am not here. I am on holidays. However, for what it's worth, is there any such tools or plugins you want me to include in the Mac (or Windows) drive images for the new year?

Frédéric WANG said...

I personally give more importance to make tools that directly deal with MathML than a temporary plugin to generate image of formulae. Nevertheless, I think such a plugin already exists.

Note that I did not know anything about Amaya but thanks to the other programmers, I have been able to make new mathematical constructions. So you see, you don't need to be a specialist to participate to the development of new MathML tools.