Future WWW technologies and (La)TeX

An earlier answer (“converting to HTML”) addresses the issue of converting existing (La)TeX documents for viewing on the Web as HTML. All the present techniques are somewhat flawed: the answer explains why.

However, things are changing, with better font availability, cunning HTML programming and the support for new Web standards.

Font technologies
Direct representation of mathematics in browsers has been hampered up to now by the limited range of symbols in the fonts whose availability designers can count on. Some existing (La)TeX to HTML converters provide maths symbols by hitching them to alternate font face specifications for standard code points in a non-standard way. This does nothing for the universality of the HTML so generated.

Now, however, free Unicode-encoded OpenType fonts, with coverage of mathematical symbols, are starting to appear. The much-heralded STIX fonts are now available on CTAN, and a tweaked version (XITS) and Asana Math are also available. The STIX project has still not released macros for using the fonts, but the unicode-math package will do what is necessary under XeTeX and LuaTeX, and the fonts can of course be used in browsers.

The core of the range of new standards is XML, which provides a framework for better structured markup; limited support for it has already appeared in some browsers.

Conversion of (La)TeX source to XML is already available (through TeX4ht at least), and work continues in that arena. The alternative, authoring in XML (thus producing documents that are immediately Web-friendly, if not ready) and using (La)TeX to typeset is also well advanced. One useful technique is transforming the XML to LaTeX, using an XSLT stylesheet or code for an XML library, and then simply using LaTeX; alternatively, one may typeset direct from the XML source.

Direct representation of mathematics
MathML is a standard for representing maths on the Web; its original version was distinctly limited, but version 2 of MathML has had major browser support since 2002 with richness of mathematical content for online purposes approaching that of TeX for print. Browser support for MathML is provided by amaya, the ‘Open Source’ browser mozilla (and its derivatives including NetScape, Firefox and Galeon) and Internet Explorer when equipped with a suitable plug-in such as MathPlayer. There’s evidence that (La)TeX users are starting to use such browsers. Some believe that XHTML+MathML now provides better online viewing than PDF. Work to produce XHTML+MathML is well advanced in both the TeX4ht and TtH projects for (La)TeX conversion.

The MathJax engine will process the content of LaTeX \[ … \] and \( … \) ‘environments’ in an HTML document, to produce mathematical output that may (for example) be cut-and-pasted into other programs.

Incorporation into your document can be as simple as incorporating:

into the header of your HTML document, though the MathJax project’s site also allows you to download your own copy and install it on one of your servers. MathJax is open source software, so you could, in principle, extend it to do even more eccentric tasks.

An approach different from (La)TeX conversion is taken by the GELLMU Project. Its article XML document type, which has a markup vocabulary close to LaTeX that can be edited using LaTeX-like markup (even though it is not LaTeX — so far), comes with translators that make both PDF (via pdflatex) and XHTML+MathML. Such an approach avoids the inherent limitations of the “traditional” (La)TeX translation processes, which have traps that can be sprung by unfettered use of (La)TeX markup.

SVG is a standard for graphics representation on the web. While the natural use is for converting existing figures, representations of formulas are also possible, in place of the separate bitmaps that have been used in the past (and while we wait for the wider deployment of MathML).

Browser plug-ins, that deal with SVG are already available (Adobe offer one, for example). More recently, the open source graphics editor Inkscape has appeared, and has been reported to be useful for SVG-related work in at least one TeX-related project. Be aware that the developers of Inkscape have no illusions about being able to replace commercial software, yet…

Direct use of TeX markup
Some time back, IBM developed a browser plug-in called TechExplorer, which would display (La)TeX documents direct in a browser. Over the years, it developed into a MathML browser plug-in, while still retaining its (La)TeX abilities, but it’s now distributed (free for Linux and Windows platforms) by Integre Technical Publishing.

The disadvantage of the TechExplorer approach is that it places the onus on the browser user; and however technically proficient you are, it’s never safe to assume too much of your readers. An interesting alternative is MathTeX, which sits on your server as a CGI script, and you use it to include your TeX, in your HTML, as if it were an image:

(Mathtex supersedes the author’s earlier mimetex.)
Asana Math fonts
STIX fonts
tex4ht (but see http://tug.org/tex4ht/)
XITS fonts

This answer last edited: 2011-10-17