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Writing Math on the Web

The Web would make a dandy blackboard if only we could scribble an equation

Brian Hayes

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How will it all turn out? Will Web sites of the future be chock full of MathML, or will TeX and HTML continue to prevail? Or will something else altogether come along?

I have no answers for these questions, but I want to suggest an adjustment in the way the Web works—a small change that could improve any strategy for displaying mathematical notation. It has to do with where fonts come from.

Under the present rules, a Web author can request a particular font, and the reader’s browser will honor the request if the font is available on the client machine. If not, some default font is substituted. Wouldn’t it be more helpful if the author could supply the missing font, either by embedding it directly in the page or by referring the browser to a site where the font is available? Given such a mechanism, any font-based system for presenting mathematics could ensure that all the needed symbols are ready at hand.

This is not a new idea. A proposal for “Webfonts” was included in a draft CSS standard in 1998, and the idea was even implemented in a few browsers, including Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. But the proposal never caught on, and it was removed from later versions of the standard. Recently, Håkon Wium Lie of Opera Software has called for renewed consideration of the idea.

Much of the discussion centers on legal questions of interest to the owners of typeface copyrights. This doesn’t seem like an insuperable problem. It was solved in the case of PDF files, which do embed fonts. Even if proprietary typefaces were off limits, there are enough freely available fonts—including all those commonly used with TeX—to make the prospect attractive.

For a change of this kind to have any impact, all the browser makers would have to adopt it. Those are the same people who have so far resisted implementing MathML. Why would they treat the font proposal any differently? I think there is reason for optimism on this score, not because the mathematical community has much clout but because embedded fonts would be of value to other constituencies. Advertisers, in particular, would be pleased to gain greater control over Web typography.

Meanwhile, as I finish preparing this column for the press, I also face the task of helping to get my own penalty copy ready for publication on the American Scientist Web site. Those irksome equations and curious characters I’ve been writing about will somehow have to be made Web-friendly. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to do that, but I suspect some bicycles are going to be outfitted with spinnakers and jibs.

©Brian Hayes


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