Is TeX obsolete? Sunday, Apr 10 2011 

The conversion, in 2010–11, of the Summa paper mill in Finland to a Google data center is a clear sign of the growing importance of electronic media and in particular web pages in human communication. In this note we ask and provide a preliminary answer to the questions: Globally, how much server CPU time is spent running TeX or one of its descendants?  And for what purpose?

For Google’s data centers the answer might be zero.  I don’t know of any Google web application that uses TeX or descendant for back-end typesetting.  The closest I know of is Google charts, which provides typesetting of  TeX notation mathematics.  But there is strong evidence that they are not using TeX’s algorithms for this.

The major site that has back-end TeX typesetting is, of course,  There are also some publisher sites that use a similar service for author submissions.

WordPress and PediaPress are two other major sites using TeX or similar. WordPress allows bloggers to put LaTeX notation mathematics into their posts and comments.  PediaPress provides a typesetting service for Wikipedia pages, which uses LaTeX as the backend.

The only other significant TeX or typesetting as a web service site I know of is MathTran (developed by myself with JISC and Open University funding).  This provides, as does WordPress, translation of formulaes for images, but this time intended for use on third-party web sites.

The more traditional reader might say: I agree that TeX is not widely available as a web service, but what does this have to do with it being obsolete?  My view is that at present TeX and its descendants are well-established only in a few paper and PDF oriented niche areas, of which mathematics and physics research is by far the most important.

If TeX does not establish itself as a ubiquitous notation and typesetting system for mathematics on web pages, and if it does not consolidate and extend its use for server-side document typesetting, then these failings may cause the system as a whole to become obsolete.  This would not be due to any inherent failings, but to a failure to provide an interface that meets the needs of electronic media, particularly the web.


Google Charts, MathTran and editable PNG files Monday, Jan 14 2008 

This post is about putting charts and formulas in your web pages, creating editable and scalable PNG files, and the need for a standard for embedded application data in image files.

Earlier today I looked at Google Charts, which allows you to ‘dynamically generate charts’. Send a Google a suitable GET request and you will get a pie chart, a bar chart or whatever, as specified in your query string. Their example is|World

which will produce the chart
Hello world pie chart

This is rather similar to MathTran, where are URL such as;tex=1%20%2B%201%2F2%20%2B%201%2F4%20%2B%20%5Cldots%20%2B%201%2F2%5En

produces the image
1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + \ldots + 1/2^n

Google Charts allows you to dynamically create graphs, and MathTran allows you to dynamically create rendered mathematical formulas. The Google API is rather better than MathTran’s, and it is certainly better documents. But MathTran has something that Google Charts doesn’t have … yet. The PNG’s returned by MathTran can be edited.


Happy birthday, Don Knuth! Sunday, Jan 13 2008 

Earlier this week Don Knuth turned 70. This posting, inspired by a coordinated series of posts by admirers in mathematics and computer scientists, is my own personal statement of appreciation of his work. Mostly, I’ve been influenced by TeX, which Don Knuth wrote both as a labour of love, and as a means to the end of writing his multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming (which is also a labour of love).

My first real contact with TeX was in 1987, five years after the first release of what has become the current version of TeX. Now the version number of TeX is, famously, converging to pi, but then it was something like 2.1. Previously I had written my PhD thesis out by hand, and skilled technical typists typed it up page by page, using the admirable IBM golfball typewriters. To obtain a special symbol, the typists had to manually change the golf-ball sized typehead. In 1986/7 I wrote a mathematics paper user the eqn preprocessor and the troff typesetting system that came with Unix. I was able to do this only because I had a lot of help from a technical typist who had several years experience with troff.