MathML is intended to facilitate the use and re-use of mathematical and scientific content on the Web, and for other applications such as computer algebra systems, print typesetters, and voice synthesizers. MathML can be used to encode both mathematical notation, for high-quality visual display, and mathematical content, for applications like scientific software, or voice synthesis, where it's important to be able to understand the meaning.
MathML is cast as an application of XML and builds upon many years of experience within the SGML and scientific publishing communities. In the immediate future, several vendors will offer applet and plug-ins which can render MathML in place in a Web browser. Translators and equation editors which can generate HTML pages with images of the math expression from HTML with embedded MathML code are already available.
Before MathML there was no satisfactory method for including mathematical expressions in Web pages. Anyone trying to do so had to choose between two unsatisfactory work arounds. Either an approximation of the equation could be constructed from ASCII characters or else a snapshot of the expression could be converted to a GIF file and embedded into the HTML as an image. Either way, users were unable to achieve high quality results, especially when printed out. Furthermore, users were unable to cut and paste into technical computing systems like Mathematica and Maple in the same way they can cut text from a Web page and paste it into a word processor.
MathML allows for a much more efficient use of bandwith because it carries only the kind of information needed for the Web browser to redraw the equation properly, rather than a complete pixel-by-pixel description of what the equation looks like already drawn. In order to perform this function, though, MathML needed a standard way of describing the layout of a mathematical expression. Its conventions had to be flexible enough to describe the wildly varying kinds of expressions used in mathematics and science, yet simple enough not to overburden the developers who would create the tools for creating and displaying expressions in MathML.
MathML strikes a balance between offering a rich presentational structure, and making available a means for associating the author's chosen mathematical definitions with specific notational constructs, thereby effectively extending ability of MathML to represent mathematical concepts. A key concern has been the ability to support the fundamental "archival" role that exists for Web pages containing mathematics. Without extendibility and support for explicit semantic bindings it is impossible to automate the extraction of meaningful mathematical information. The semantic information is simply not present in existing representations, especially those which focus only on the visual presentation. Attempts to recover the semantics are blocked by the ambiguous nature of the visual presentation.
For people with visual disabilities, learning mathematics has always been an uphill climb. The emphasis on visual notation creates special problems for devices that read text either on paper or on screen to drive speech synthesisers or Braille displays. MathML will open up the way for people with visual disabilities to study and work with mathematical materials in a way that has never been feasible until now. Increasingly, accessibility is a requirement, not an option, and covered by laws requiring reasonable modifications of policies and practices that may be discriminatory.
MathML is not designed for hand entry. Instead, authors will be able to use a range of tools for editing mathematical expressions. W3C's Amaya browser/editor can already be used to edit MathML and several vendors including Design Science, Geometry Technologies, HP, IBM, Waterloo Maple and Wolfram are committed to providing support for MathML. Existing word processors will be able to generate MathML for embedded mathematical expressions via export filters.
The MathML specification has been produced as part of the W3C Math Activity, and is available at http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-mathml. For information on W3C's work on mathematics, see http://www.w3.org/Math/
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