Wolfram, the company behind the Mathematica computational software and the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge” search engine, has released a new document format today – the Computable Document Format (CDF). As the name suggests, the CDF aims to bring real-time interactivity and computational power to documents, by enabling them to include a variety of graphs and formulas.

This makes a “computable” document quite different than a “print” document. The information isn’t fixed but can be manipulated by the reader. Unlike static formats, CDFs are “as interactive as apps, yet as everyday as documents,” say Wolfram. “Central to the concept are knowledge apps, interactive diagrams, or info apps – the live successors of traditional diagrams and infographics.”

Interactive “Knowledge Apps” versus Static Graphics

In a blog post describing the new format, Conrad Wolfram compares a “traditional” graphic explaining the Doppler Effect with what he calls a “knowledge app,” a CDF-based graphic demonstrating the same thing. Using the latter, readers can adjust the variables – observer location, source frequency, initial velocity and time – in order to gain a better understanding of how the Doppler Effect works.

That idea of giving readers tools for better understanding dovetails with Wolfram’s larger mission of supporting educational and scientific efforts. And Wolfram sees the CDF as being particularly useful in educational and scientific publications.

It isn’t simply readers who are meant to benefit from having more interactive publications. Wolfram says that the CDF is also designed to make it easier for authors and publishers to create and incorporate these knowledge apps into documents, arguing that up until now, these sorts of things have often required a knowledge of programming. CDFs can be created using the Mathematica software, and Wolfram insists that building a knowledge app is as easy as writing a macro in Excel. (And Conrad Wolfram quips that he’d like to make authoring even easier so that “anyone who can make an Excel chart be able to make a CDF.”)

Will the Format Be Widely Adopted?

While the CDF does open a lot of possibilities here, this new format is based on proprietary technology. It’s not an open standard, and as O’Reilly Radar’s Andy Oram notes, “I assume Wolfram will keep strict control over the format, which draws a lot from the Mathematica language, and I doubt other companies will want to or be able to catch up to Wolfram in the sophistication of the tools they offer.”

To experiment with the new Computable Document Format, you can visit the Wolfram website and see some examples and other use cases. These require the download of a Wolfram CDF Player.