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Moving Beyond PDF May 30, 2009

Posted 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:

imageIt looks like that no matter what your screen size is. So if you zoom in to a single column you’ll have to scroll down, then across and up and then down, etc. Yuck.

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:

imageNow, for a “larger screen” (I’m simulating this by resizing the window, but you get the idea):


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.



1. Andy - May 30, 2009

For most arxiv papers, you can click on “other” format and download a tar.gz of the paper “source”, i.e. a .tex file and all the figures, bib, etc.

You should be able to write a web script or something that will take a source package link, download it, run latex, and make a PDF optimized for a “mobile” screen size. (You may even be able to work with the arxiv folks to add this as an official extension of their web services…)

2. Gordon Watts - June 1, 2009

Hi Andy – definately. One could try to pipe it through WebTex (or similar) and hopefully out would come something that was “good enough” for viewing on all sorts of devices. Sadly, modern phones don’t really have enough CPU power to do this on their own, so you’d need a server in the background.

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