Microsoft fails Aussie maths compatibility test

Microsoft's decision to dump compatibility with Mathematical Markup Language (MathML) in favour of its own Office MathML (OMML) in Office 2007 is unlikely to win any support in Australia, where software tools like TeX, MathType and Mathematica predominate.According to a blog entry posted by Microsoft Office software development engineer, Murray Sargent, the rationale behind the decision, is the desire to have an XML that corresponds closely to the internal Microsoft format.

Microsoft's decision to dump compatibility with Mathematical Markup Language (MathML) in favour of its own Office MathML (OMML) in Office 2007 is unlikely to win any support in Australia, where software tools like TeX, MathType and Mathematica predominate.

According to a blog entry posted by Microsoft Office software development engineer, Murray Sargent, the rationale behind the decision, is the desire to have an XML that corresponds closely to the internal Microsoft format.

"The main problem is that Word needs to allow users to embed arbitrary span-level material (basically anything you can put into a Word paragraph) in math zones and MathML is geared toward allowing only math in math zones," Sargent wrote in the post.

However, the accompanying maths editing tool, which creates the relevant symbols in OMML, will need to offer a significant improvement over previous versions if it is to win over mathematicians, who have traditionally opted for more specific tools like TeX, MathType and Mathematica.

"The Microsoft Office maths publishing tool is fairly rudimentary compared to other maths software like MathType and Mathematica," suggested Australian mathematician Oscar Lima. "It's not very user friendly and the range of symbols is much larger. If the other software is not compatible with the latest version of Office, I'd just put off upgrading my system for as long as possible."

However, Professor Peter Hall, president of the Australian Mathematical Society and editor of four mathematical journals says Microsoft's decision is unlikely effect science publishing in Australia where the open-source maths publishing suite TeX is the industry standard.

"Most mathematicians and journals in Australia use some version of TeX, because it's freely available, and provides a much richer array of mathematical characters," said Hall. "Not only is it an editing tool for maths symbols, it also does the editing for English and other languages like Farsi and I've heard Sanskrit."

In a similar vein, Dr Ken Russell, technical editor of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Statistics says he rarely receives Word document submissions.

"It won't affect most of our contributors because they won't submit in Word anyway; LaTeX is the maths typesetting tool we use, and although we get the occasional Microsoft Word document they are by far in the minority," Dr Russell said.

Nonetheless, two leading UK journals Science and Nature have announced on their Web sites they will not accept submissions created using the Office 2007 version of Word.

"Because of changes Microsoft made in its recent Word release that are incompatible with our internal workflow, which was built around previous versions of the software, Science cannot, at present, accept any files in the new .docx format produced through Microsoft Word 2007, either for initial submission or for revision," Science journal stated on its site.

Likewise, Nature said it: "currently cannot accept files saved in Microsoft Office 2007 formats [because] equations and special characters -- for example, Greek letters -- cannot be edited and are incompatible with Nature's own editing and typesetting programs."

Responding to the issues highlighted by Science and Nature, Sargent said in a separate blog posting that Word 2007's new mathematical facility is a huge improvement over previous approaches. "But anytime such big improvements occur, there can be, and evidently are, problems with upgrading," he said.

"I think the trouble is well worth it in both user convenience, and the marvellous typographic quality."

However, Microsoft Australia was unable to respond to queries by press time, or provide ZDNet Australia with more details about the new tool's added functionality.

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