Moving Beyond PDF May 30, 2009Posted by gordonwatts in Uncategorized.
Last time I used iPhone app’s as a lead in to writing about why PDF is no longer the best format to get papers around and read. The problem is that your-screen-is-about-the-size-of-a-page no longer holds. Here is what a single page from a typical paper in ArXiv looks like:
Here is an example of one program that does what I want – the New York Times reader*. Here it is reading an article on a “small” screen:
Note how the text columns changed width and resized – and now it added a picture as well (in the first screen size it was on page 2). This is what I want for the ArXiv papers. Automatic reflow depending on the screen size being looked at. On the iPhone you’d imagine that it would do only a single column. Perhaps you could render it in-line in a web page as a single column if you wanted – or just render it in columns. Your browser could become the display application and the document could reflow depending. How sweet would that be?
So how close are we to that? I don’t really know. HTML will work for most text. I suspect you could do figures pretty well. To first order if you didn’t need them to float it probably would be possible to do them in HTML. But for us in physics the killer are equations. There seems to be one possibility out there: MathML. For an example of what this looks like – see UT Austin physicist’s Jacques Distler’s blog Musings. As Distler points out, WebTex along with modifications to include MathML makes for a pretty decent solution. And the source for the ArXiv files is available too. Perhaps a first solution only takes a server in the clouds doing the conversion and acting as a front-end for CPU-weak devices like smart phones?
Bill Hill, who was one of the inventors of Clear Type (which makes text look so much better on a computer screen) writes an interesting blog where he talks about some of these issues (though not the Math aspect). As you can see from spending about 30 minutes there he claims everything is now in place, but someone has to put it all together…
I think we are at the brink of an explosion in different sized device displays. It is time our display rendering technology caught up with that!
* These images are from version 1 of the reader, which is Windows only. They have a version 2 out now, which is cross platform (on Windows, Apple, and Linux), but I like the Windows only interface better so I’ve not converted yet (but it does the reflow as I’m describing here). But if you own Linux or Apple and you want the offline experience of reading the paper in a much more comfortable environment than the web, I’d definitely recommend checking it out.