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!