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Booktype pioneers printing equations in a digital environment

Booktype pioneers printing equations in a
Booktype pioneers printing equations in a

One of the big issues for online content production is building a system that manages equations. It seems like this problem should have been solved long ago, but historically typesetting solutions have been difficult to resolve.  One of the first books to come off Gutenberg's press with music notations were written by hand. As moveable type never really suited music typography, engraving and lithography became a large part of book publishing history. The first music notes printed with moveable type might not have occurred until at least the 18th century.

So it is no surprise that browser based typography for similar things like equations has taken longer to implement than hyphenation problems, which are also only partially solved for web typesetting.

TeX Technology

One of the reasons for this setback are TeX technologies, like LaTeX, who have had a hold over digital typography for some time. Computer enthusiasts love LaTeX because it is typesetting that uses math and was invented by its arch deacon - Donald Knuth. Knuth developed TeX because he saw "the whole business of typesetting was being held back by proprietary interests" - a very laudable position. But while TeX aimed to open up the world of typesetting 'to anyone', it failed due to the requirement of a well flexed math brain.

So a situation similar to the wiki mark up vs WYSIWYG editor debate resulted for typography. Wiki mark up was invented by Ward Cunningham because writing HTML was slow and difficult. When WYSIWYG editors came along, the old guard wiki wizards argued that wiki mark up was still quicker. "Just teach them wiki mark up!" they cried. Those cries are still heard today, but fading fast. WYSIWYG editors are easier and require less introduction for new users. But the problem is sensitive because LaTeX loving developers need to build non-LaTeX solutions for the rest of us that just want to get online, point, click and type.

Never the less, some progress has been made. MathJax changed the game with open source javascript libraries that translate equations into a variety of markup languages. Now we are busy experimenting with this for Booktype and are very happy with the results. Here are some examples from a textbook developed by the wonderful Siyavula project in South Africa.

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Equations using Booktype

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Equations using Booktype

The cool thing about the Booktype tool chain is that the content is created in a browser and rendered to PDF all with open source. That is, we are using web typesetting technologies, including CSS and javascript, to make books! This is a very powerful paradigm that enables us to do things like create book content online (complete with equations using libraries like MathJax) and  output them to paper.

We are making good progress with this so far, and look forward to showing off some more results soon.

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