Peter Krautzberger on the web

Math on the web: time to step up!

You may have seen my previous post on why MathML is a failed web standard and, how, for better or worse, I think the focus needs to be on helping the tools that work on the web today.

The obvious problem is: how should that work? How do we get this small, disparate, and sometimes divided community of math tools for the web to inform web standards and, ultimately, browser development?

Well, it’s time to find out.

A couple of people have been working towards a new effort and we’ve now formed a W3C Community Group. The name may sound funny but it’s what this group is after: Getting Math onto Web Pages. No fuss, no drama, no limitations. The focus is on how we do this today and how we can make it easier.

So now it’s up to us.

If you’re a developer of a tool that makes math work on the web today and want to help shape the future, then it’s time to step up. I know your resources are probably tight, in fact most projects out there are run by idealists, as side-projects or chronically under-funded. I hear you.

But you built a tool because nothing was getting the job done. Standards? Same thing. We need to learn about the process, understand what we want to do and what we can do, and ultimately, help build standards that work for everyone. Otherwise, the job won’t get done.

So join the Community Group and work together to move the web forward for mathematics and beyond.

Need more information? Here’s the initial description from the CG homepage:

There are many technical issues in presenting mathematics in today’s Open Web Platform, which has lead to the poor access to Mathematics in Web Pages. This is in spite of the existing de jure or de facto standards for authoring mathematics, like MathML, LaTeX, or asciimath, which have been around for a very long time and are widely used by the mathematical and technical communities.

While MathML was supposed to solve the problem of rendering mathematics on the web it lacks in both implementations and general interest from browser vendors.

However, in the past decade, many math rendering tools have been pushing math on the web forward using HTML/CSS and SVG.

One of the identified issues is that, while browser manufacturers have continually improved and extended their HTML and CSS layout engines, the approaches to render mathematics have not been able to align with these improvements. In fact, the current approaches to math layout could be considered to be largely disjoint from the other technologies of OWP.

Another key issue, is that exposing (and thus leveraging) semantic information of mathematical and scientific content on the web needs to move towards modern practices and standards instead of being limited to a single solution (MathML). Such information is critical for accessibility, machine-readability, and re-use of mathematical content.

This Community Group intends to look at the problems of math on the web in a very bottom-up manner.

Experts in this group should identify how the core OWP layout engines, centered around HTML, SVG, and CSS, can be re-used for the purpose of mathematical layout by mapping mathematical entities on top of these, thereby ensuring a much more efficient result, and making use of current and future OWP optimization possibilities. Similarly, experts should work to identify best practices for semantics from the point of view of today’s successful solutions.

This work should also reveal where the shortcomings are, from the mathematical layout point of view, in the details of these OWP technologies, and propose improvements and possible additions to these, with the ultimate goal of reaching out to the responsible W3C Working Groups to make these changes. This work may also reveal new technology areas that should be specified and standardized on their own right, for example in the area of Web Accessibility.

The ultimate goal is to pave the way for a standard, highly optimized implementation architecture, on top of which mathematical syntaxes, like LaTeX or MathML, may be mapped to provide an efficient display of mathematical formulae.

Note that, although this community group will concentrate on mathematics, many other areas, e.g., science and engineering, will benefit from (and factor into) the approach and from the core architecture.

PS: We’ve also applied for a CG slot at TPAC 2016 in Lisbon for a face-to-face of the CG as well as the opportunity to talk to other groups. Fingers crossed!