Final Thoughts on LaTeX

November 18, 2006

Was just looking to find a nice clean document format for my thesis and stumbled on this Apple Blog article.

I think LaTeX is mostly useful in two situations:

  • You have to write a lot of math equations
  • Your language can be written in 7-bit ASCII and you have someone else to do the layouts for you (like in books etc)

Why LaTeX is NOT suited for 99,9% of users:

  • It’s difficult to learn and there’s a ton of useless crap you have to remember to do. Want to add an image? Know which package to use? No?, too bad. With all due respect, this isn’t 1978 anymore!
  • There’s no concept of a page. Say you’re given a task to write a 5 page report. How long is that in BBEdit or TextMate?
  • It basically has no concept of non-ASCII characters. Even with extended ASCII you have to import extra packages and write “ä” as “\“a” (or something else equally nonsensical
  • Document exchange - to share a document with “the rest of the world” you have to export. Sure, LaTeX will have exporters to a bazillion different formats, but it’s extremely tedious.Why not just write it as RTF in the first place? RTF syntax looks pretty much like TeX anyways.
  • Separation of layout from content? Have you seen an even slightly more elaborate TeX document? There’s style declarations all over the place! The only difference is the syntax is so insane you can’t tell structure and style apart!
  • What’s all this “LaTeX output looks so beautiful - nonsense?” It’s ASCII! It looks consistent! And that’s because you can’t experiment too much simply because it’s just too damn difficult (to write AND preview) And let’s be honest, if you keep changing fonts and spacings all over your document with Word (or whatever), then you simply have no sense of style and you shouldn’t blame the tool. And I can concentrate on the content using Pages or TextEdit just as much and even more because I don’t have to worry about if this is going to compile or not.
  • The MacTeX distribution is more than 800MB (uncompressed) long!!! That’s almost as big as Pages 2!!!

I almost fell into this “LaTeX lunacy” myself though. I think what happens is that if you invest enough effort into anything (like hours trying to understand how to create a table!) and you read all these wonderful things others are saying about it, that thing naturally will become very dear to you. It’s basic human nature. Luckily, I was able to escape it.

Some things, like programming, are hard to understand because they are inherently complex and you spend time learning them. Text editing should not be one of those things!!! I agree that there’s a need for a text-based format that would work on any platform but it should also be easy to author. Anyone got any suggestions? DocBook seems kind of bloated.