Wolfram's Computational Document Format

Wolfram, makers of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, unveiled
a new set of tools today
for embedding mathematical formulas and
charts into documents–formulas and charts that the reader can edit
and play with. With these tools, Wolfram takes a leap into the modern
interactive publishing and educational market. You can create a
document that contains a chart, say, about the current relationship
between publishing ad revenues and subscriptions, but let the reader
carry out experiments such as “Suppose we accelerate the trend in
subscriptions a little bit…” Simply by dragging a line on a chart,
the reader can cause the graph to recalculate relationships according
to an underlying formula. Wolfram calls the output the Computable Document Format.

Wolfram’s tools create documents that can be shared on the Web, and
are free for use by people who publish free documents. The tools can
be licensed by organizations that charge for documents. Access to the
tools can be on the Wolfram site (Software as a Service), or licensed
and installed on your own server.

These tools look to me like a boon to educators, and I predict that
all manner of publishers in the sciences and social sciences will
license them. Other researchers and policy-makers may also find them
useful because the demos make them seem easy to use. Conrad Wolfram,
Managing Director of Wolfram Europe, said that embedding an
interactive CDF was as easy now as creating an Excel macro, and that
they were aiming to make it as easy as an Excel chart.

Publishing is already proceeding at a fast trot toward interactive
documents. Web developers in particular can choose from such winning
tools as Processing, JavaScript
with HTML 5, and even the <a
href="http://processingjs.org/"Processing.jscombination of
Processing with JavaScript. Flash also remains a stalwart. None of
these seem to create mathematical interactions as cleanly and easily
as Wolfram’s CDF tools, but they can create a whole lot of other types
of interactions in addition to mathematical ones. That’s why I think
Wolfram’s proprietary and strictly constrained solution will have an
important place for certain types of publishers, but it’s an open
question whether web developers or general publishers will choose it
over the more open, standard, well-established tools.

Wolfram offers a demo
site
whose contents can be investigated with a special CDF player. You can try
out demos as fun as creating a Mandelbrot fractal drawing or as useful
as interactively investigating the effects on ROI of changes in
investment parameters.

My impression of the demos, however, was that few had the power to
affect real decision-making. For instance, I don’t see how moving
points around a graph can teach you analytic geometry; it doesn’t tap
enough into the abstract thinking that you need to grasp the concepts.

Wolfram plans to release the format itself as what they call a “public
standard.” This is not the same as an open standard. Typical CDF looks
like:

I assume Wolfram will keep strict control over the format, which draws
a lot from the Mathematica language, and I doubt other companies will
want to or be able to catch up to Wolfram in the sophistication of the
tools they offer.

In short, I think Wolfram has a winner if it can be used by educators,
policy-makers, and other serious purveyors of information to use it to
help readers answer important questions along the lines of, “How does
the world change if I revise my assumptions?” If CDF becomes just a
competitor to existing technologies for eye-catching and amusing
displays, it won’t contribute anything new.

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