Post-Summit Thoughts on the MathML Project
I'm back from a great Mozilla Summit 2013 and I'd just like to write a quick blog post about the MathML booths at the Innovation Fairs. I did not have the opportunity to talk with the MathML people who ran the booth at Santa Clara yet. However, everything went pretty well at Brussels, modulo of course some demos failing when done in live... If you are interested, the slides and other resources are available on my GitHub page.
Many Mozillians did not know about MathML or that it had been available in Gecko since the early days of the Mozilla project. Many people who use math (or just knowing someone who does) were curious about that feature and excited about the MathML potentials. I appreciated to get this positive feedback from Mozillians willing to use math on the Web and related media, instead of the scorn or hatred I sometimes see by misinformed people. I expect to provide more updates on LaTeXML, MediaWiki Math and MathJax when their next versions are released. The Gecko MathML support improves slowly but there has been interesting work by James Kitchener recently that I'd like to mention too.
Let's do an estimation à la Fermi: only a few volunteers have been contributing regularly and simultaneously to MathML in Gecko while most Mozilla-funded Gecko projects have certainly development teams that are 3 times as large. Let's be optimistic and assume that these volunteers have been able to dedicate a mean of 1 work day per week, compared to 5 for full-time staff. Given that the Mozilla MathML project will celebrate its 15 years next May, that means that the volunteer work transposed in terms of paid-staff time is only year. To be honest, I'm disregarding here the great work made by the Mozilla NZ team around 2007 to repair MathML after the Cairo migration. But still, what we have achieved in quality and completeness with such limited resources and time is really impressive.
As someone told me at the MathML booth, it's really frustating that something that is so important for the small portion of math-educated people is ignored because it is useless for the vast majority of people. This is not entirely true, since even elementary mathematics taught at school like the one of this blog post are not easily expressed with standard HTML and even less in a way accessible to people with visual disabilities. However, it summarizes well the feeling MathML folks had when they tried to convince Google to accept the volunteer work on MathML, despite its low quality.
As explained at the Summit Sessions, Mozilla's mission is different and the goal is to give people the right to control the Web they want. The MathML project is perhaps one of the oldest and successful volunteer-driven Mozilla project that is still active and demonstrates concretely the idea of the Mozilla's mission with e.g. the work of Roger Sidge who started to write the MathML implementation when Netscape opened its source code or the one of Florian Scholz who made MDN one of the most complete Web resource for MathML.
Mozilla Corporation has kept saying they don't want to invest in MathML developments and the focus right now is clearly on other features like FirefoxOS. Even projects that have a larger audience than the MathML support like the mail client or the editor are not in the priorities so someone else definitely need to step in for MathML. I've tried various methods, with more or less success, to boost the MathML developments like mentoring a GSoC project, funding a summer internship or relying on mentored bugs. I'm now considering crowd funding to help the MathML developments in Gecko (and WebKit). I don't want to do another Fermi estimation now but at first that looks like a very unreliable method. The only revenue generated by the MathML project so far are the dollars to the Mozilla Fundation via contributions to my MathML-fonts add-on, so it's hard to get an idea of how much people would contribute to the Gecko implementaton. However, that makes sense since the only people who showed interest in native MathML support so far are individuals or small businesses (e.g. working on EPUB or accessibility) and I think it's worth trying it anyway. That's definitely something I'll consider after MathJax 2.3 is released...