Wolfram punts expanded medium for technical docs

Wolfram punts expanded medium for technical docs

Conrad Wolfram, the man behind knowledge engine Wolfram:Alpha, has announced a new document format which he claims offers an expanded medium for explaining technical, scientific, or otherwise complex concepts.

Dubbed CDF – Computable Document Format – the new standard aims to bring the kind of computation Wolfram is known for to portable documents that can be used within a browser, on a desktop and on hand-held devices.

“CDF binds together and refines lots of technologies and ideas from our last 20-plus years into a single standard,” Wolfram explains in a blog post on his company’s site. “Knowledge apps, symbolic documents, automation layering, and democratised computation, to name a few.

“Disparate though these might appear, they come together in one coherent aim for CDF: connecting authors and readers much better than ever before.”

The core concept of CDF is to allow content creators a ‘knowledge container’ format that is as easy to author as a standard document, but features the same level of interactivity as an application. “The idea,” claims Wolfram, “is for CDFs to make live interactivity as everyday a way to communicate as spreadsheets made charts.”

Wolfram CDF Player welcome screen

The free CDF Player – available as a desktop application for Windows, Mac, and Linux, or as a browser plugin for selected platforms – demonstrates Wolfram’s intention well: while a copy of his blog post looks standard at first, an embedded CDF object allows users to experiment with the concepts behind the Doppler Effect in a simple, straightforward manner.

By adding truly interactive content to documents, Wolfram believes that complex concepts can be far better communicated. “Static documents take their share of the blame in making us ‘information rich, but understanding poor,’ to repurpose the common saying,” he said. “For too long, authors have had to aggressively compress their ideas to fit down the narrow communication pipe of static documents, only for readers at the other end to try to uncompress, reconstruct, and guess at the original landscape of information.

“With CDFs we’re broadening this communication pipe with computation-powered interactivity, expanding the document medium’s richness a good deal,” claims Wolfram. “We’re also improving what I call the ‘density of information’ too: the ability to pack understandable information into a small space – particularly important on small screen devices like smartphones.”

Wolfram argues that CDF extends beyond existing technologies for introducing interactivity into documents, such as Adobe’s Flash and the various capabilities of HTML5. “With a computation-powered knowledge container,” he said, “you don’t need to pre-compute and pre-generate – you can leave that to runtime, your authoring can be at a much higher level than for example in Flash or HTML5.”

Wolfram CDF Player in use

It’s an approach which has already won some major support in the form of contributions to the Wolfram Demonstrations Project, a collection of over 7,000 ‘knowledge apps’ created and submitted by content creators who aren’t professional programmers. “Unless content originators – that is, teachers, journalists, analysts, managers, academics, and so on – make the content interactive themselves, it won’t be interactive,” Wolfram explains. “It’s simply too expensive and too difficult if professional programmers are involved.”

Wolfram’s mention of expense does skim over one important consideration for the future success of CDF as a mainstream ‘knowledge container’ standard, however. The CDF format is, currently, closed, with the only compatible software created by Wolfram and his team. While the Player is free to download, creation requires the purchase of a package called Mathematica.

Created by Wolfram in 1988, Mathematica – currently on its eighth release – is an impressively powerful computation engine that allows users to calculate and visualise data in a convenient manner with a minimum of programming knowledge. It’s popular, but it’s also expensive: a single-user commercial licence for up to four processing cores will set you back £2,050. Non-commercial users can opt for the ‘Home’ release, but even that costs £195.

Wolfram’s goal is laudable, but the approach is questionable: until there is a way to cheaply create – rather than merely consume – CDF content, it looks set to remain a niche format.

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