Peter Krautzberger on the web

The curious invisibility of MathML

By now, my one two readers might consider me a huge flip-flop when it comes to MathML. It’s great, it’s terrible, it’s great, it’s terrible etc. Thankfully, nobody reads this so that’s not a huge issue that I was recently reminded of a couple of things that keep making me doubt MathML’s future on the web. One of them is its invisibility as a web standard.

Around the time when I first came to grips with the part of my job for MathJax which can only be called something horrible like “technology evangelist”, webplatform.org launched. For a newbie like me this seemed like a big thing. All the big companies involved, supposedly working together, pushing the Open Web Platform, bringing together the best of existing devloper docs (Mozilla, Google, Microsoft etc), creating documentation hackathons etc. This is huge! (No it wasn’t.)

So as a new MathJax and thus MathML “evangelist” I was dismayed that MathML was not mentioned in the “hot topics” list on the frontpage (cf. the Wayback Machine). I remember trying to raise the issue and getting a response literally years later (2014) pointing me to where I should have tried to start a discussion. Recently, I visited the site again, and since its redesign last year, it’s a bit clearer where things stand, but still MathML is hard to find.

In fact, I can’t find any link to MathML while browsing webplatforms.org. Only the search finally yields a link to the base page for MathML (and the content you’ll find starting form there seems to be copied from MDN (which is obviously fine)). But don’t worry, even here you’ll find a little bit of MathML bashing.

So as I came upon webplatform.org again recently, I started to wonder why I had given up on approaching such sites. And it’s pretty simple: if you look around, it’s pretty much the same thing everywhere.

Whether it’s the html5-is-cool sites like html5rocks or html5please, MathML just doesn’t show up. General web development sites? Oh look, Smashing Magazine has no mention since 2009 and A List Apart has one comment in 2013 and even that 2009 article comes with snark..

I’d give you that caniuse lists MathML but even if you can bear the pain of looking at all that red, take a look at its frontpage which lists MathML under “other”, a miraculous category with anything from EOT to strict mode to ShadowDOM; not exactly prime real estate.

Then you cast your net wider and go to Google Web Alerts and your register to get an alert for MathML, you set it to its widest setting – and what you’ll get is almost exclusively a long lists of MathML snippets produced by Springer OA journals, with maybe some MathJax or StackOverflow sprinkled in. Speaking of which, don’t go search for mathml on StackOverflow because you will only see questions that have next to nothing to do with the web (except that really nice and difficult one that obviously has to have negative votes – yay SO community…).

But maybe you are also interested in other things. Like regular web technologies (you know, the ones that get implemented by browser vendors) or other niche web ecosystems. And then you might just notice some really cool resources in those areas. Can you even imagine something like flexbugs or an awesome-style GitHub list or the incredible 99problems for MathML? I admit I can’t.

Let’s stop here.