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MathML for Math and Science Communication

MathML is the XML standard for encoding mathematics. Originally intended as a means of incorporating mathematics in web pages, MathML has grown to become a general format for the exchange and communication of mathematics in a wide variety of math and science applications.

Brief History

The need for standards became apparent early in the development of the web. In 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded, and began putting in place a process to recommend standards for the web. Almost at once, proposals for adding math capabilities to HTML began circulating at W3C, and in 1995, the formal development of MathML began. The first release of the MathML Specification was in 1997.

Implementation in web browsers proceeded slowly over the intervening decade. In an early success, Design Science developed MathPlayer to add MathML capability to Internet Explorer. Native support was added to Firefox, Opera, and various more specialized browsers. Outside of browsers, MathML has been widely adopted in publishing workflows based on XML, and is incorporated by reference into a number of scientific XML vocabularies such as CellML. It is also used as an exchange format for applications that support mathematical content, including such notable applications as Microsoft Word, Open Office, Maple and Mathematica. More recently, MathML has achieved prominence as a means for providing accessible mathematics for individuals with visual disabilities.

Design Science has been involved in the development of MathML from the beginning, and Dr. Robert Miner, the editor of the MathML specification, is Vice President for Research & Development at Design Science. Dr. Neil Soiffer, a senior scientist at Design Science, is also a long time member of the W3C Math Working Group, and is a leading figure in the use of MathML for math accessibility.

Why MathML Is Important

While MathML is similar in many ways to earlier encodings for math expressions, it is broader in scope and goals than earlier efforts. Mathematics expressions occur in many contexts where they are used in very different ways. Expressions appear in print books and articles, where they must be rendered at high resolution at a fixed size. They also appear in electronic media, where resolution is generally lower, but sizes and line wrapping change dynamically. For individuals with print disabilities, the same expression must be spoken aloud or rendered in a Braille format. In a global economy, the ability to generate many "localized" versions of an expression is increasingly important, since notational conventions vary widely from region to region. And perhaps the most notable feature of mathematics expressions is that they can often be evaluated or symbolically manipulated with scientific software such as computer algebra systems.

In our modern information economy, value is created when information is able to flow from one context to another with a minimum of friction. MathML is important because it enables seamless transfer and reuse of mathematical content from application to application and context to context.

A key way in which MathML enables such interoperability is by storing information about mathematical structure as well as typographic appearance. Two other key characteristics of MathML have also been important in enabling interoperability. First, MathML is defined in terms of XML. Secondly, MathML tries to be as media independent as possible, with support for interactivity, computation, and speech synthesis, as well as traditional paper publishing.

Because of these advantages, many math and science software vendors have added MathML support to their products. As new products are developed, they increasingly benefit from implementing MathML support as well. For example, the Windows 7 Math Input Panel enables handwritten input of math into many applications by using MathML as an exchange format. As a result, the now well-known "network effect" has contributed to the continued growth of MathML support.

Design Science and MathML

Design Science is the world's leading vendor of MathML products and solutions. MathType and MathFlow (core portions of which were initially released under the name WebEQ) are among the oldest applications for working with MathML available. MathPlayer is the leading way of displaying MathML in Internet Explorer, and together with MathDaisy, our newest product, provide cutting edge math accessibility.

Learning More about MathML

There are many resources for learning more about MathML. Some of our favorites include:

W3C MathML 3.0 Specification
The latest official MathML specification.
W3C MathML Working Group Home Page
The official site for news about the MathML specification.
A Gentle Introduction to MathML
An introduction and tutorial to MathML along with a reference section on the WebEQ implementation of MathML
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