Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

Putting CDF into Play

Now that the Computable Document Format (CDF) is officially released, the real fun has begun. At least for me. Whether or not you plan to start using CDF in your own work anytime soon, you’ve got to admit, it’s pretty cool. From publishing textbooks and making complex information easy to understand to recreational games and everyday blogging, CDF truly makes it possible to communicate ideas in a more participatory way—as adopters of the format have already proven.

It has been exciting to see the tremendous interest in CDF following last month’s launch. Although CDF is a new advancement, it’s clear that the possibilities it presents resonate with authors and readers alike, and hence with publishers as well.

But it’s not just the idea of CDF that is generating interest—it’s the success of it in action. Perhaps the most visible example to date is the award-winning, first edition Briggs/Cochran Calculus: Early Transcendentals textbook published by Pearson Education last year. Yes, in 2010—well before CDF was released—Pearson decided to adopt the beta CDF technology. It all started with an email back in March 2008 from an industrious author named Eric Schulz…

Pearson's Calculus: Early Transcendentals received the 2011 Textbook Excellence Award for its CDF-enhanced ebook

Eric, of course, is now a co-author of the Briggs/Cochran Calculus text, as highlighted in the CDF examples on our website and in this recent customer story:

Eric happened to meet Bill Briggs and Lyle Cochran while showcasing his use of the dynamic interactivity features first introduced in Mathematica 6. On using CDF technology for this project, Eric says, “Those that have been teaching have been yearning for something that would bring our subject alive and move beyond the textual content we normally find, and support that with visualizations that are interactive, so the feedback has been incredibly positive.”

After being invited to join the author team to produce a fully interactive ebook version of the print text, Eric came to us to figure out the details of implementation. To quote Theo Gray, co-founder of both Wolfram Research and TouchPress (which also relies on Mathematica technologies for e-publishing development), our response was, “This sounds quite interesting. Can we provide help?” And the rest, as they say, is history.

While a project like Calculus is obviously well-suited for CDF implementation, what’s great about CDF is that, unlike most other interactive technologies for publishing, it makes adding dynamic computation to your work accessible to virtually anyone, from Pearson Education to individual authors like Richard Werthamer. Werthamer, author of Risk and Reward: The Science of Casino Blackjack, published by Springer in 2009, is another early CDF adopter who recently retained the rights to publish the CDF version of his book, and has done so independently.

For early adopters, what makes CDF even more compelling now are the increased options and ease of deployment through a web browser, as embedded in HTML, or still as a standalone application for offline use. They’re also looking forward to iPad deployment, as CDF development for that widely used platform is well underway.

In truth, we’ve been talking to authors and publishers about CDF and its beta incarnations for a while now, both in everyday interactions and with those who have seen us at conferences or attended our events. Many find publishing with CDF to be a natural fit for the scientific community as a whole, and a natural extension of Wolfram’s native notebook authoring environment to enable it.

Yet others are approaching CDF from other angles, be it under our FreeCDF licensing terms for open source journals and content repositories, or as commercial CDF for ebooks and online learning systems, or in other combinations. We’re even working with publishers who have chosen to re-license content from the Wolfram Demonstrations Project to enrich their materials, in conjunction with the Wolfram CDF Player.

We’re pleased to see so much activity around CDF at this stage of the game, and to be asked about unique use cases and how we might help make them work. New offerings from Pearson, Cengage, Wiley, and Encyclopedia Britannica, among others, are representative of just some of the ways in which we see CDF being used in educational publishing, let alone the dynamic possibilities for trade books, journals, and professional reference.

If you’ve got an interesting idea on how you’d like to use CDF for e-publishing, or how you see it being able to make the largest contribution toward democratizing computation and broadening the communication pipeline in your field, we want to hear from you too.


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  1. That’s surely a way to go. So many things should be “smart” and “able to calculate and modify the graphs etc.”. We’re still using screens as dull paper in so many contexts.

    Still, I am afraid that Wolfram Research will have to give many more things away for free for the format itself to spread. Even though the player is free, the number of documents that require it – and can’t be replaced by another format – remains low because the production of it is not free.

    Maybe Wolfram Research should think about a bold step that will allow pretty much everyone to use Mathematica etc. in some limited way to be cleverly designed.

  2. What about long-term compatibility? Obviously it is impractical to keep new versions of Mathematica 100% compatible with code written for the older versions (although the incompatibilities are rare, they accumulate over time).

    Can one be confident that a CDF produced today will display and work correctly in the latest version of the CDF player 5 years from now?

  3. I disagree with Luboš Motl, just take Adobe PDF for example, production is not free (Adobe Acrobat is very expensive), there are ways of outputting to PDF for free, but these came long after PDF was an adopted standard.

  4. The best way to promote CDF would be to encourage online journals and research sites like SSRN to start specific section for interactive journal articles. In fact this could be a major positive differentiator for online journals.

  5. It will be awesome to be able to run CDF on iPads or some iPad app for computable documents.

  6. Can I download the source code of the presentations of the 2011 Virtual Conference?