A history of MathML

(Excerpt from "The MathML Handbook" by Pavi Sandhu)

Since its inception in the early 1990s, the World Wide Web has transformed the way people exchange and receive information. With the rapid development of browser technology, the varied enhancements to the HTML language, and the advent of stylesheet mechanisms, the Web has evolved into a rich and versatile medium. It is now possible to create Web pages that contain frames, buttons, and forms; include rich content in the form of animations, sound, and video; as well as respond dynamically to user actions using applets and scripting languages.

Despite all these impressive developments, current Web technology still has its share of weaknesses. Notable among these is the lack of adequate support for displaying mathematical content. Most current methods for representing mathematics in Web pages have severe limitations. This situation is all the more surprising given that the Web was invented by scientists for the exchange of scientific information, which typically makes intensive use of mathematical notation.

With the overwhelming success and popularity of the Web in the 1990s, the need for a suitable method to represent mathematics on the Web became increasingly acute. Some mathematicians and programmers recognized that a markup language was needed, one that would overcome the limitations of HTML and allow mathematical notation to be displayed on the Web in all its richness and complexity.

After the W3C was formed in 1994, it began looking into the issue of representing mathematics on the Web. The W3C's initial efforts focused on developing a special set of tags that could be incorporated into a future version of HTML. In 1994, Dave Raggett submitted a proposal for HTML Math, which was to be included in the HTML 3.0 working draft. In 1996, formal support for the new mathematical tags was added as part of HTML 3.2. However, due to lack of interest from major browser vendors, this approach failed to get wide acceptance.

In 1997, the W3C Math Working Group was formed. By this time, XML had emerged as a widely accepted standard for extending HTML. The Math Working Group therefore decided to create a new XML-based language, separate from HTML, to be called Mathematical Markup Language (or MathML). The first version of this language, MathML 1.0, was released as a W3C recommendation in April 1998.

An extended and refined version, MathML 2.0 was released on February 21, 2001. This version added some new tags and attributes as well as deprecated a few existing features. Its goal was to provide greater consistency and compatibility with other Web technologies, including CSS, Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL), and Document Object Model (DOM). MathML 2.0 also supports a larger range of extended characters than MathML 1.0. Version 2.0 defines named entity references for about 2,500 special characters and symbols.

The W3C's Amaya and the open-source browser Mozilla, were the first browsers to include native support for MathML. Over the last year (that is, in 2002), there has been important progress in making MathML viewable on a wide variety of browsers and platforms. The release of Netscape 7.0 means that MathML display is now natively supported in at least one mainstream browser. IE and older versions of Netscape can display MathML using freely available add-on software. The W3C has also provided a Universal MathML stylesheet that eliminates many of the incompatibility issues between different browsers and add-on software. Many free and commercial tools for authoring and editing MathML content are available. Several leading mathematical software applications, such as Mathematica and Maple, support MathML as a format for importing or exporting formulas. All of these developments mean that it is easier than ever before to create and display MathML on the Web.


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Copyright © CHARLES RIVER MEDIA, INC., Massachusetts (USA) 2003
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