[whatwg] Mathematics on HTML5

James Graham jg307 at cam.ac.uk
Mon May 29 07:44:24 PDT 2006

Michel Fortin wrote:
> Maybe I can add my view to this thread. I'm no user of MathML, nor do I 
> write often complicated equations on the web. I don't know much Latex 
> either.
> One thing I know however is that the next time I'll have to put an 
> equation on a web page, I won't go looking for a MathML editor just to 
> be able to generate the markup, convert the page to XHTML served as 
> application/xhtml+xml (so that it works with MathML) and ask my users to 
> install the required plugin or web browser just to see my equation. I'll 
> use an image: it'll be a lot simpler.

In this situation, I imagine most scientists will simply write LaTeX and 
use a tool to produce the output format that they desire. (La)TeX has 
the advantage of being a well designed, domain-specific language that 
allows for a very compact representation of most mathematical 
constructs. So, in that sense, the complexity of the language is of 
secondary importance to the ability to map between LaTeX and the 
language. This is just as well because /any/ XML based language for 
maths is going to suffer from substantial verbosity. For MathML, there 
is already a reasonable story here since Itex2MML exists, although it 
really needs to be integrated with tools like hyperlatex if it is ever 
to be widely used. I would also argue that the difficulty of providing 
suitable imaged-based fallback content is a massive hindrance to the 
adoption of mathematical markup.

> What Juan propose, about adding a limited number of elements to HTML for 
> maths, actually makes sense to me, especially if you can get not-too-bad 
> results with CSS. HTML is designed to be easy to learn and write; if we 
> had a markup like that for mathematics which integrates easily in HTML 
> it'd be much more used than MathML, I'm sure.

The problem is that it's not nearly so easy to do as he suggests. Look 
at the test page - some of the rendering is awful (the radical signs in 
particular stand out here). And, despite being sold as a simpler 
solution than a MathML implementation, it works in about 1% of UAs (by 
number of users) compared to > 95% that have a story for native or 
plugin-based MathML. The language that they have used is also overly 
simplistic. For example one would expect most text in a formula to be in 
italics except where actual words were being used in which case the text 
should be roman. So you need an additional element to distinguish text 
from ordinary numbers. Add a few more considerations like that and you 
soon have a language that's just as painful to hand-author as MathML 
(which, I agree, is far from perfect) and little support among end users.

Also, I think it's worth mentioning that trying to get accessibility 
right for Maths content is likely to be extremely challenging. The 
chance of authors investing the time to allow a semantic e.g. 
spoken-word representation is 0 (this is incompatible from the 
'everything will be generated from LaTeX hypothesis above). So I think 
it would be useful to know what actual scientific users currently do 
when faced with mathematical content in e.g. a PDF document.

More information about the whatwg mailing list