Wolfram Blog
Conrad Wolfram

The Day That Documents and Applications Merged

October 14, 2007 — Conrad Wolfram, Director of Strategic & International Development

My announcement last Thursday that you can publish almost any Mathematica notebook so it’s interactive in our free Player brings about much more of a change than you might first think.

In my Technology Conference talk, I explained how this new Publish for Player service removes one of the last hurdles to making new applications as everyday as new documents. And in turn that initiates a new era of communicating technical ideas.


Let’s start right back around Newton’s time, when writing papers became a standard way to explain new findings. The main idea became to summarize, explain interesting cases, and conclude. Printing was difficult, particularly with diagrams. You couldn’t easily mass publish all your “workings”–how you got to the answer–it was too expensive.

Of course since then technical communication has progressed a long way: documents often have diagrams, photographs–even animations or videos. In the right hands, each new medium has brought higher communication bandwidth–capable of transferring more ideas, more detail, more accuracy, and fewer mistakes from author to reader.

For a long time Mathematica notebooks have been important in this progression, introducing the ideas of mixing text, graphics, computation, and program code in one hierarchically structured document.

But up until now, applications–where the content isn’t precomputed–haven’t been a part of the frontline, everyday process of communication. They’re thought of as being separate–something for your own purpose, not for communication.

Why is this? After all, it’s not as if languages like Java or Flash aren’t widely deployable or that they can’t fit within a scrolling document with other kinds of content. And it’s not that applications don’t dramatically increase the communication bandwidth and engage the “reader” far more than today’s traditional content.

The problem has been overhead: it’s been just too difficult for anyone to author meaningful, easy-to-use applications in a way that’s deployable to anyone. So most of the time, people don’t bother. Applications have been the domain of programmers and software producers.

The release of Mathematica 6 removed a major barrier. Automatic interface building with Manipulate allied to all the computational power of Mathematica meant that you really could make a meaningful, useful application in a minute–less time than it’s taken me to write this paragraph.

Watch a simple example of doing just that from my colleague Jon McLoone here.

After authoring, the other major barrier was deployment. How can you be sure everyone can interact with your application (or was that document)? That’s where our new website comes in. By going to our online conversion site, you can convert your document to be interactive in our free Player–something which anyone can download (just like they would Adobe’s Acrobat Reader).

Before now, our highly successful Demonstrations site has already proved how important “application communication” is. Already 1900+ Demonstrations, thousands of visitors per day, and examples from every imaginable field and level. And that’s in just six months.

However, Demonstrations are only one particular format of interactive document: each has just one application, a particular layout of snapshots, specific descriptions, etc. That’s been crucial in making the site so successful as visitors know what to expect and authors know what sort of content to submit.

But the new online conversion service opens up almost any notebook. If you’re a Mathematica user, that means you don’t have to share your work just with other users anymore. Create your dynamic applications and share them with anyone you’d like. You can even post them on your website and link people to the Player download–a great way to publish research papers, books, or interesting computational models.

If you’re not yet a Mathematica user, the Player will give you open access to an increasing range of dynamic content powered by our latest technology.

Be one of the first to join this new era of interactive publishing with your hybrid documents/applications–or what I guess I’ve already started calling your “interactive documents.”

I’m very pleased that some folks do want to share their notebooks with us when they convert them. In the coming days, check back at interactive deployment site as we post a few of the resulting interactive documents.

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