Funding MathML Developments in Gecko and WebKit
update 2013-10-15: since I got feedback, I have to say that my funding plan is independent of my work at MathJax ; I'm not a MathJax employee but I have an independent contractor status. Actually, I already used my business to fund an intern for Gecko MathML developments during Summer 2011 :-)
Since last April, I have been allowed by the MathJax Consortium to dedicate a small amount of my time to do MathML development in browsers, until possibly more serious involvement later. At the same time, we mentioned this plan to Google developers but unfortunately they just decided to drop the WebKit MathML code from Blink, making external contributions hard and unwelcome...
Hence I have focused mainly on Gecko and WebKit: You can find the MathML bugs that have been closed during that period on bugzilla.mozilla.org and bugs.webkit.org. For Gecko, this has allowed me to finish some of the work I started as a volunteer before I was involved full-time in MathJax as well as to continue to mentor MathML contributors. Regarding WebKit, I added a few new basic features like MathML lengths,
<mmultiscripts> while I was getting familiar with the MathML code and WebKit organization/community. I also started to work
More importantly, I worked with Martin Robinson to address the design concerns of Google developers and a patch to fix these issues finally landed early this week.
However, my progress has been slow so as I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am planning to find a way to fund MathML developments...
Why funding MathML?
Note: I am assuming that the readers of this blog know why MathML is important and are aware of the benefits it can bring to the Web community. If not, please check Peter Krautzberger's Interview by Fidus Writer or the MozSummit MathML slides for a quick introduction. Here my point is to explain why we need more than volunteer-driven development for MathML.
First the obvious thing: Volunteer time is limited so if we really want to see serious progress in MathML support we need to give a boost to MathML developments. e-book publishers/readers, researchers/educators who are stuck outside the Web in a LaTeX-to-PDF world, developers/users of accessibility tools or the MathML community in general want good math support in browsers now and not to wait again for 15 more years until all layout engines catch up with Gecko or that the old Gecko bugs are fixed.
The consequence of this is that it is extremely difficult for volunteers to get involved in native MathML and to do quick progress because they have to understand how the various components of the Blink/Gecko/WebKit code work and be sure to do things correctly. Good mathematical rendering is already something hard by itself, so that is even more complicated when you are not writing an isolated rendering engine for math on which you can have full control. Also, working at the Blink/Gecko/WebKit level requires technical skills above the average so finding volunteers who can work with the high-minded engineers of the big browser companies is not something easy. For instance, among the enthusiastic people coming to me and willing to help MathML in Gecko, many got stuck when e.g. they tried to build the Firefox source or do something more advanced and I never heard back from them. In the other direction, Blink/Gecko/WebKit paid developers are generally not familiar with MathML and do not have time to learn more about it and thus can not always provide a relevant review of the code, or they may break something while trying to modify code they do not entirely understand. Moreover, both the volunteers and paid staff have only a small amount of time to do MathML stuff while the other parts of the engine evolve very quickly, so it's sometimes hard to keep everything in sync. Finally, the core layout engines have strong security requirements that are difficult to satisfy in a volunteer-driven situation...
Beyond volunteer-driven MathML developments
At that point, there are several options. First the lazy one: Give up with native math rendering, only focus on features that have impact on the widest Web audience (i.e. those that would allow browser vendors to get more market share and thus increase their profit), thank the math people for creating the Web and kindly ask them to use whatever hacks they can imagine to display equations on the Web. Of course as a Mozillian, I think people must decide the Web they want and thus exclude this option.
Next there is the ingenuous option: Expect that browser companies will understand the importance of math-on-the-Web and start investing seriously in MathML support. However, Netscape and Microsoft rejected the <MATH> tag from the 1995 HTML 3.0 draft and the browser companies have kept repeating they would only rely on volunteer contributions to move MathML forward, despite the repeated requests from MathML folks and other scientific communities. So that option is excluded too, at least in the short to medium term.
So it remains the ambitious option: Math people and other interested parties must get together and try to fund native MathML developments. Despite the effort of my manager at MathJax to convince partners and raise funds, my situation has not changed much since April and it is not clear when/if the MathJax Consortium can take the lead in native MathML developments. Given my expertise in Gecko, WebKit and MathML, I feel the duty to do something. Hence I wish to reorganize my work time: Decrease my involvement in MathJax core in order to increase my involvement in Gecko/WebKit developments. But I need the help of the community for that purpose. If you run a business with interest for math-on-the-Web and are willing to fund my work, then feel free to contact me directly by mail for further discussion. In the short term, I want to experiment with Crowd Funding as discussed in the next section. If this is successful we can think of a better organization for MathML developments in the long term.
Wikipedia defines Crowd funding as "the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations". There are several Crowd Funding platforms with similar rule/interface. I am considering Catincan which is specialized in Open Source Crowd Funding, can be used by any backer/developer around the world, can rely on Bugzilla to track the bug status and seems to have good process to collect the fund from backers and to pay developers. You can easily login to the Catincan Website if you have a GitHub, Facebook or Google account (apparently Persona is not supported yet...). Finally, it seems to have a communication interface between backers and developers, so that everybody can follow the development on the funded features.
One distinctive feature of catincan is that only well-established Open Source projects can be funded and only developers from these projects can propose and work on the new features ; so that backers can trust that the features will be implemented. Of course, I have been working on Gecko, WebKit and MathML projects so I hope people believe I sincerely want to improve MathML support in browsers and that I have the skills to do so ;-)
As said in my previous blog post, it is not clear at all (at least to me) whether Crowd Funding can be a reliable method, but it is worth trying. There are many individuals and small businesses showing interest in MathML, without the technical knowledge or appropriate staff to improve MathML in browsers. So if each one fund a small amount of money, perhaps we can get something.
One constraint is that each feature has 60 days to reach the funding goal. I do not have any idea about how many people are willing to contribute to MathML and how much money they can give. The statistical sample of projects currently funded is too small to extract relevant information. However, I essentially see two options: Either propose small features and split the big ones in small steps, so that each catincat submission will need less work/money and improvements will be progressive with regular feedback to backers ; or propose larger features so they look more attractive and exciting to people and will require less frequent submissions to catincat. At the beginning, I plan to start with the former and if the crowd funding is successful perhaps try the latter.
Status in Open Source Layout Engines
Note: Obviously, Open Source Crowd Funding does not apply to Internet Explorer, which is the one main rendering engine not mentioned below. Although Microsoft has done a great job on MathML for Microsoft Word, they did not give any public statement about MathML in Internet Explorer and all the bug reports for MathML have been resolved "by design" so far. If you are interested in MathML rendering and accessibility in Internet Explorer, please check Design Science blog for the latest updates and tools.
Note: I am actually focusing on the history of Chromium here but of course there are other Blink-based browsers. Note that programs like QtWebEngine (formerly WebKit-based) or Opera (formerly Presto-based) lost the opportunity to get MathML support when they switched to Blink.
Alex Milowski and François Sausset's first MathML implementation did not pass Google's security review. Dave Barton fixed many issues in that implementation and as far as I know, there were not any known security vulnerabilities when Dave submitted his last version. MathML was enabled in Chrome 24 but Chrome developers had some concerns about the design of the MathML implementation in WebKit, which indeed violated some assumptions of WebKit layout code. So MathML was disabled in Chrome 25 and as said in the introduction, the source code was entirely removed when they forked.
Currently, the Chromium Dashboard indicates that MathML is shipped in Firefox/Safari, has positive feedback from developers and is an established standard ; but the Chromium status remains "No active development". If I understand correctly, Google's official position is that they do not plan to invest in MathML development but will accept external contributions and may re-enable MathML when it is ready (for some sense of "ready" to be defined). Given the MathML story in Chrome, it seems really unlikely that any volunteer will magically show up and be willing to submit a MathML patch. Incidentally, note the interesting work of the ChromeVox team regarding MathML accessibility: Their recent video provides a good overview of what they achieve (where Volker Sorge politely regrets that "MathML is not implemented in all browsers").
Although Google's design concerns have now been addressed in WebKit, one most serious remark from one Google engineer is that the WebKit MathML implementation is of too low quality to be shipped so they just prefer to have no MathML at all. As a consequence, the best short term strategy seems to be improving WebKit MathML support and, once it is good enough, to submit a patch to Google. The immediate corollary is that if you wish to see MathML in Chrome or other Blink-based browsers you should help WebKit MathML development. See the next section for more details.
Actually, I tried to import MathML into Blink one day this summer. However, there were divergences between the WebKit and Blink code bases that made that a bit difficult. I do not plan to try again anytime soon, but if someone is interested, I have published my script and patch on GitHub. Note there may be even more divergences now and the patch is certainly bit-rotten. I also thought about creating/maintaining a "Chromatic" browser (Chrome + mathematics) that would be a temporary fork to let Blink users benefit from native MathML until it is integrated back in Blink. But at the moment, that would probably be too much effort for one person and I would prefer to focus on WebKit/Gecko developments for now.
The situation in WebKit is much better. As said before, Google's concerns
are now addressed and MathML will be enabled again in all WebKit releases
Martin Robinson is interested in helping the MathML developments in
WebKit and his knowledge of fonts will be important to improve operator
stretching, which is one of the biggest issue right now.
One new volunteer contributor, Gurpreet Kaur, also started to
do some work on WebKit like support for the
attributes or for the
<menclose> element. Last but
not least, a couple of Apple/WebKit developers reviewed and accepted
patches and even helped to fix a few bugs, which made possible to move
When he was still working on WebKit, Dave Barton opened bug 99623 to track the top priorities. When the bugs below and their related dependencies are fixed, I think the rendering in WebKit will be good enough to be usable for advanced math notations and WebKit will pass the MathML Acid 1 test.
- Bug 44208:
For example, in expression like
the "x" should be in italic but not the "sin". This is actually slightly
more complicated: It says when the default
mathvariantvalue must be
mathvariantis more like the
text-transformCSS property in the sense that it remaps some characters to the corresponding mathematical characters (italic, bold, fraktur, double-struck...) for example (mathvariant=fraktur A) should render exactly the same as (U+1D504). By the way, there is the related bug 24230 on Windows, that prevents to use plane 1 characters. The best solution will probably be to implement mathvariant correctly. See also Gecko's ongoing work by James Kitchener below.
Bug 99618: Implement
<mmultiscripts>, that allows expressions like or . As said in the introduction, this is fixed in WebKit Nightly.
- Bug 99614: Support for stretchy operators like in . Currently, WebKit can only stretch operators vertically using a few Unicode constructions like ⎛ (U+239B) + ⎜ (U+239C) + ⎝ (U+239D) for the left parenthesis. Essentially only similar delimiters like brackets, braces etc are supported. For small sizes like or for large operators like it is necessary to use non-unicode glyphs in various math fonts, but this is not possible in WebKit MathML yet. All of this will require a fair amount of work: implementing horizontal stretching, font-specific stuff, largeop/symmetric properties etc
- Bug 99620: Implement the operator dictionary. Currently, WebKit treats all the operators the same way, so for example it will use the same 0.2em spacing before and after parenthesis, equal sign or invisible operators in e.g. . Instead it should use the information provided by the MathML operator dictionary. This dictionary also specifies whether operators are stretchy, symmetric or largeop and thus is related to the previous point.
- Bug 119038: Use the code for vertical stretchy operators to draw the radical symbols in roots like . Currently, WebKit uses graphic primitives which do not give a really good rendering.
Bug 115610: Implement <mspace> which is used by many MathML generators to do some spacing in mathematical formulas. As said in the introduction, this is fixed in WebKit Nightly.
In order to pass the Mozilla MathML torture tests, at least displaystyle and scriptlevel must be implemented too, probably as internal CSS properties. This should also allow to pass
Joe Java's MathML test, although that one relies on the infamous
that duplicates the stretchy operator features and is implemented inconsistently
in rendering engines. I think passing the MathML Acid 2 test will require slightly more effort,
but I expect this goal to be achievable if I have more time to work on WebKit:
Bug 115610: Implement <mspace>. Fixed!
- Bug 120164: Implement negative spacing for <mspace> (I have an experimental patch).
- Bug 85730: Implement <mpadded>, which is also used by MathML generators to do some tweaking of formulas. I have only done some experiments, that would be a generalization of <mspace>
- Bug 85733: Implement the
hrefattribute ; well I guess the name is explicit enough to understand what it is used for! I only have some experimental patch here too. That would be mimicing what is done in SVG or HTML.
- Bug 120059 and
bug 100626: Implement
<maction>(at least partially) and
<semantics>, which have been asked by long-time MathML users Jacques Distler and Michael Kohlhase. I have patches ready for that and this could be fixed relatively soon, I just need to find time to finish the work.
In general passing the MathML Acid 2 test is not too hard, you merely only need to implement those few MathML elements whose exact rendering is clearly defined by the MathML specification. Passing the MathML Acid 3 test is not expected in the medium term. However, the score will naturally increase while we improve WebKit MathML implementation. The priority is to implement what is currently known to be important to users. To give examples of bugs not previously mentioned: Implementing menclose or fixing various DOM issues like bugs 57695, 57696 or 107392.
More advanced features like those mentioned in the next section for Gecko are probably worth considering later (Open type MATH, linebreaking, mlabeledtr...). It is worth noting that Apple has already done some work on accessibility (with MathML being readable by VoiceOver in iOS7), authoring and EPUB (MathML is enabled in WebKit-based ebook readers and ibooks-author has an integrated LaTeX-to-MathML converter).
In general I think I have a good relationship with the Mozilla community and most people have respect for the work that has been done by volunteers for almost 15 years now. The situation has greatly improved since I joined the project, at that time some people claimed the
Mozilla MathML project was dead after Roger Sidge's departure.
One important point is that Karl Tomlinson has worked
on repairing the MathML support when Roger Sidge left the project. Hence
there is at least one Mozilla employee with good knowledge of MathML who
can review the volunteer patches. Another key ingredient is the work that has recently been made by Mozilla to increase engagement of the volunteer
community like good documentation on MDN, the
#Introduction channel, Josh Matthews' mentored bugs and of course programs like GSOC. However, as said
above, it is one thing to attract enthusiastic contributors and another thing
to get long-term contributors who can work independently on more advanced features. So
let's go back to my latest Roadmap for the Mozilla MathML Project and see what has been accomplished for one year:
- Font support: Dmitry Shachnev created a Debian package for the MathJax fonts and Mike Hommey added MathJax and Asana fonts in the list of suggested packages for Iceweasel. The STIX fonts have also been updated in Fedora and are installed by default on Mac OS X Lion (10.7). For Linux distributions, it would be helpful to implement Auto Installation Support. The bug to add mathematical fonts to Android has been assigned in June but no more progress has happened so far. Henri Sinoven opened a bug for FirefoxOS but there has not been any progress there either. I had some patches to restore the "missing MathML fonts" warning (using an information bar) but it was refused by Firefox reviewers. However, the code to detect missing MathML font could still be used for the similar bug 648548, which also seems inactive since January. There are still some issues on the MathJax side that prevent to integrate Web fonts for the native MathML output mode. So at the moment the solution is still to inform visitors about MathML fonts or to add MathML Web fonts to your Web site. Khaled Hosny (font and LaTeX expert) recently updated my patches to prepare the support for Open Type fonts and he offered to help on that feature. After James Kitchener's work on mathvariant, we realized that we will probably need to provide Arabic mathematical fonts too.
- Spacing: Xuan Hu continued to work on <mpadded> improvements and I think his patch is close to be accepted. Quentin Headen has done some progress on <mtable> before focusing on his InstantBird GSOC project. He is still far from being able to work on
mtable@rowspacing/columnspacingbut a work around for that has been added to MathJax. I fixed the negative space regression which was missing to pass the MathML Acid 2 test and is used in MathJax. Again, Khaled Hosny is willing to help to use the spacing of the Open Type MATH, but that will still be a lot of work.
- <mlabeledtr>: A work around for native MathML has been added in MathJax.
- Linebreaking: No progress except that I have worked on fixing a bug with intrinsic width computation. The unrelated printing issues mentioned in the blog post have been fixed, though.
- Operator Stretching: No progress. I tried to analyze the regression more carefully, but nothing is ready yet.
- Tabular elements: As said above, Quentin Headen has worked a bit on cleaning up <mtable> but not much improvements on that feature so far.
- Token elements: My patch for <ms> landed and I have done significant progress on the bad measurement of intrinsic width for token elements (however, the fix only seems to work on Linux right now). James Kitchener has taken over my work on improving our
mathvariantsupport and doing related refactoring of the code. I am confident that he will be able to have something ready soon. The primes in exponents should render correctly with MathJax fonts but for other math fonts we will have to do some glyph substitutions.
- Documentation: It is now possible to use MathML in code sample or directly in the source code. The MathML project pages have been entirely migrated to MDN. Also, Florian Scholz has recently been hired by Mozilla as a documentation writer (congrats!) and will in particular continue the work he started as a volunteer to document MathML on MDN.
I apologize to volunteers who worked on bugs that are not mentioned above or who are doing documentation or testing that do not appear here. For a complete list of activity since September 2012, Bugzilla is your friend. There are two ways to consider the progress above. If you see the glass half full, then you see that several people have continued the work on various MathML issues, they have made some progress and we now pass the MathML Acid 2 test. If you see the glass half empty, then you see that most issues have not been addressed yet and in particular those that are blocking the native MathML to be enabled in MathJax: bug 687807, bug 415413, the math font issues discussed in the first point, and perhaps linebreaking too. That is why I believe we should go beyond volunteer-driven MathML developments.
Most of the bugs mentioned above are tested by the MathML Acid 3 tests and we will win a few points when they are fixed. Again, passing MathML Acid 3 test is not a goal by itself so let's consider what are the big remaining areas it contains:
- Improving Tabular Elements and Operator Stretching, which are obviously important and used a lot in e.g. MathJax.
- Linebreaking, which as I said is likely to become fundamental with small screens and ebooks.
- Elementary Mathematics (you know addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that kids learn), which I suspect will be important for educational tools and ebooks.
- Alignment: This is the one part of MathML that I am not entirely sure is relevant to work on in the short term. I understand it is useful for advanced layout but most MathML tools currently just rely on tables to do that job and as far as I know the only important engine that implements that is MathPlayer.
Finally there are other features outside the MathML rendering engines that I also find important but for which I have less expertise:
- Transferring MathML that is implementing copy/cut/drag and paste. Currently, we can do that by treating MathML as normal HTML5 code or by using the "show MathML source" feature and copying the source code. However, it would be best to implement a standard way to communicate with other MathML applications like Microsoft Word, Mathematica, Mapple, Windows' Handwriting panel etc I wrote some work-in-progress patches last year.
- MathML Accessibility: This is one important application of MathML for which there is strong demand and where Mozilla is behind the competitors. James Teh started some experimental work on his NVDA tool before the summit.
- EPUB reader for FirefoxOS (and other mobile platforms): During the "Co-creating Action Plans" session, the Mozilla Taipei people were thinking about missing features for FirefoxOS and this idea about EPUB reader was my modest contribution. There are a few EPUB readers relying on Gecko and it would be good to check if they work in FirefoxOS and if they could be integrated by default, just like Apple has iBooks. BTW, there is a version of BlueGriffon that can edit EPUB books.
I hope I have convinced some of the readers about the need to fund MathMLin browsers. There is a lot of MathML work to do on Gecko and WebKit but both projects have volunteers and core engineers who are willing to help. There are also several individuals / companies relying on MathML support in rendering engines for their projects and could support the MathML developments in some way. I am willing to put more of my time on Gecko and WebKit developments, but I need financial help for that purpose. I'm proposing catincan Crowd Funding in the short term so that anyone can contribute at the appropriate level, but other alternatives to fund the MathML development can be found like asking Peter Krautzberger about native MathML funding in MathJax, discussing with Igalia about funding Martin Robinson to work more on WebKit MathML or contacting me directly to establish some kind of part-time consulting agreement.
Please leave a comment on this blog or send me a private mail, if you agree that funding MathML in browsers is important, if you like the crowd funding idea and plan to contribute ; or if you have any opinions about alternative funding options. Also, please tell me what seem to be the priority for you and your projects among what I have mentioned above (layout engines, features etc) or among others that I may have forgotten. Of course, any other constructive comment to help MathML support in browsers is welcome. I plan to submit features on catincan soon, once I have more feedback on what people are interested in. Thank you!