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A View from Paul Boutin

New Format Adds Computing Power to Documents

Publishing information in the new CDF format allows readers to interact with your data.

  • July 22, 2011

Turning static documents into interactive presentations, so that a reader can manipulate charts and use demo programs in the middle of a page, is nothing new. But a new document format created by Wolfram Research, the people behind knowledge search engine Wolfram Alpha, claims to overcome the limits of other formats such as PDF, Flash, and those of Microsoft Office.

Stephen Wolfram, founder of Wolfram Research, hopes his Computable Document Format, or CDF, will become an established publishing standard adopted by the makers of document editing and viewing software. In a series of interactive demos and videos, Wolfram Research claims CDF documents beat existing formats at interactivity and flexibility, yet don’t require a programmer to create. It includes some of the capabilities of Mathematica, the mathematical software package sold by Wolfram Research to scientists and engineers.

Wolfram’s challenge will be to gain adoption of his format in the more business-minded makers of publishing tools. Currently, CDF authoring tools allow users to import data from Word and Excel documents, but the format won’t be a winner until it allows them to publish new documents in popular formats. A spokeswoman for Adobe declined to comment on whether that company is considering CDF support for its popular PDF format used for Web publishing.

Wolfram Research told CNET that they are still working on a business model to make money from CDF. Looking at the example documents on Wolfram’s site (you’ll need to install a free CDF player on your computer), it’s believable that CDF was driven by an honest frustration with the limits of current technology rather than a master plan to get rich. If you’ve ever viewed a report with charts prepared by someone else, you may know the feeling: What hidden trends or complete surprises might be uncovered if you could manipulate the author’s data yourself?

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