Many people discover LATEX after years of struggling with wordprocessors and desktop publishing systems, and are amazed to find that TEX has been around for over 30 years and they hadn't heard of it. It's not a conspiracy, just ‘a well-kept secret known only to a few million people’, as one anonymous user has put it.
Perhaps a key to why it has remained so popular is that it removes the need to fiddle with the formatting while you write. Playing around with fonts and formatting is highly attractive to new computer users, and great fun for a while, but it is completely counter-productive for the serious author or editor who needs to concentrate on actual writing — ask any journalist or professional writer. Best-guess estimates by experts in the field of usability engineering are that average computer users spend up to 50% of their time fiddling with the formatting rather than thinking or writing — and this is with the so-called office productivity packages that major manufacturers peddle to their clients!
A few years ago a new LATEX user expressed concern on the comp.text.tex newsgroup about ‘learning to write in LATEX’. Some excellent advice was posted in response to this query, which I reproduce with permission below (the bold text is my own emphasis):
No, the harder part might be writing, period. TEX/LATEX is actually easy, once you relax and stop worrying about appearance as a be-all-and-end-all. Many people have become Word Processing Junkies and no longer ‘write’ documents, they ‘draw’ them, almost at the same level as a pre-literate 3-year old child might pretend to ‘write’ a story, but is just creating a sequence of pictures with a pad of paper and box of Crayolas — this is perfectly normal and healthy in a 3-year old child who is being creative, but is of questionable usefulness for, say, a grad student writing a Master's or PhD thesis or a business person writing a white paper, etc. For this reason, I strongly recommend not using any sort of fancy GUI ‘crutch’. Use a plain vanilla text editor and treat it like an old-fashioned typewriter. Don't waste time playing with your mouse.
Note: I am not saying that you should have no concerns about the appearance of your document, just that you should write the document (completely) first and tweak the appearance later...not [spend time on] lots of random editing in the bulk of the document itself.
Robert Heller (11 March 2003), comp.text.tex
Learning to write well can be hard, but authors shouldn't have to make things even harder for themselves by using manually-driven systems which break their concentration every few seconds for some footling adjustment to the appearance, simply because the software is incapable of doing it right by itself.
Donald Knuth originally wrote TEX to typeset mathematics for the second edition of his master-work The Art of Computer Programming, and it remains pretty much the only typesetting program to include fully-automated mathematical formatting done the way mathematicians do it. But he also brought out a booklet called Mathematical Writing which shows how important it is to think about what you write, and how the computer should be able to help, not hinder, the author while writing.
TEX is of course much more than math: it's a programmable typesetting system which can be used for almost any formatting task, and the LATEX document preparation system which is built on it has made it usable by almost anyone. Professor Knuth generously placed the entire TEX system in the public domain, which meant it is free for anyone to use, but which also meant that for many years there was little commercial publicity which would have got TEX noticed outside the technical field, because there were few commercial versions.
Nowadays, however, there are many companies selling TEX software or services,1 dozens of publishers accepting LATEX documents for publication, and hundreds of thousands of users using LATEX for millions of documents.2
There is occasionally some confusion among newcomers between the two programs, TEX and LATEX, and the other versions available, so I'd like to clear this up:
A typesetting program, originally written by Don Knuth at Stanford in 1978–9. It implements a macro-driven typesetters' programming language of some 300 basic operations and it has formed the core of many other desktop publishing (DTP) systems. Although it is still possible to write in the raw TEX language, you need to study it in depth, and you need to be able to write macros (subprograms) to perform even the simplest of repetitive tasks.
A user interface for TEX, designed by Leslie Lamport at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1985 to automate all the common tasks of document preparation. It provides a simple way for authors and typesetters to use the power of TEX without having to learn the underlying language. LATEX is the recommended system for all users except professional typographic programmers and computer scientists who want to study the internals of TEX.
(not ‘Contest’) A system similar to LATEX, but with its own set of commands, and a much greater emphasis on producing high-function PDF output. Documentation is less accessible than for LATEX, but the author, Hans Hagen provides excellent support at Pragma/ADE.
A recent reimplementation of TEX by Jonathan Kew which merges Unicode and modern font technologies. It is in common use in graphical environments such as TEXshop (Mac OS X), Kile (GNU/Linux), and WinEDT (Windows). Details are at the SIL web site.
- pdfTEX and pdfLATEX
An extended version of the TEX program that creates PDF directly instead of via DVI files and PostScript, written by Hàn Thế Thành. It can also enhance the result of TEX/LATEX typesetting with the help micro-typographic extensions, native font embedding, and PDF support for hyperlinking. It can also produce DVI files, so it is currently (2011) the default TEX engine in most distributions.
Texinfo is the official documentation format of the GNU project.3 It was invented by Richard Stallman and Bob Chassell. It uses a single source file to produce output in a number of formats, both online and printed (DVI, HTML, INFO, PDF, XML, etc.). TeXinfo documents can be processed with any TEX engine.
Both TEX and LATEX have been constantly updated since their inception. Knuth has now frozen changes to the TEX engine so that users and developers can have a virtually bug-free, rock-stable platform to work with.4 Typographic programming development continues with the New Typesetting System (NTS), planned as a successor to TEX. The LATEX3 project has taken over development of LATEX, and the current version is LATEXε, which is what we are concentrating on here. Details of all developments can be had from the TUG web site at http://www.tug.org
- See, for example, the list of TEX vendors in Table 1, and the list of consultants published by TUG.
- A guesstimate. With free software it's virtually impossible to tell how many people are using it.
- GNU's Not Unix (GNU) is a project to create a completely free computing system — ‘free’ meaning both free from encumbrances and restrictions as well as free of charge.
- Knuth still fixes bugs, although the chances of finding a bug in TEX these days approaches zero.