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Word processors are getting better these days, and I'm wondering if LaTeX was a solution in the past for a buggy Microsoft Word, and it programmatically gave you the options to do formatting. I'm just starting out with LaTeX, and I find it quite good. I don't want to be working or learning an outdated technology (if it is).

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No, TeX (initial release 1978) was not created in response to MS Word (first version in 1983). – Caramdir Mar 29 '11 at 1:39
Definitely it is, but for completely different reasons, but TeX based typesetting systems are as relevant as ever, as long as there are people who think so. – Khaled Hosny Mar 29 '11 at 4:26
(La)TeX is a typesetting language, and is as outdated as say HTML or the English language. As long there are no Word processors which give you the same programmable freedom and the same typographical quality, (La)TeX wont be outdated. – Martin Scharrer Mar 29 '11 at 8:13
Ok. It appears that the articles I were reading were bias and were only targeting MS. – alexy13 Mar 29 '11 at 10:54
up vote 25 down vote accepted

There are three aspects.

  • The first is the superior typesetting that LaTeX delivers. As long as no word processor approximates LaTeX’ algorithm for paragraph breaks, the latter will have its place in producing professional layouts.

    Just compare a page of text written in LaTeX and Microsoft Word (or any other word processor) in the same font. The LaTeX-set text will look far superior because it will be more evenly distributed on the page, use word breaks more judiciously and if microtypography is enabled this will even have a stronger effect. There is simply no question that LaTeX delivers something unique here.

    LaTeX cannot be replaced by a word processor here, only by a DTP (desktop publishing) system. Modern DTPs exist but are prohibitively expensive for most people.

  • The second is mode of operation: in LaTeX, I program my documents. This is fundamentally different from the usage of word processors or “modern” DTPs. But it’s not necessarily inferior.

    Quite the opposite: I’d argue that it’s superior once you have learned the basics because it will always be vastly more powerful and faster to use. In fact, modern word processors provide complex scripting engines (VBScript) with huge libraries to allow users to automate certain processes. Most of what these engines offer comes for free in TeX and is vastly simpler to use.

  • The third is modernity of underlying technologies. Here LaTeX has some weaknesses compared to other systems and programming languages. TeX is pre-Unicode and the Unicode support that was grafted on is still causing trouble. Likewise, TeX lacks almost all features of modern programming languages. Foremost among these is the lack of a good module system. This makes package writing really painful.

    In all these aspects LaTeX is indeed woefully outdated (although it gets better with XeTeX, LuaTeX and LaTeX3). But as long as there are no alternatives, TeX remains the only choice.

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Me too on the weaknesses compared to modern systems; just look at all the time wasted on workarounds for handling of “~” or missing Unicode characters—a truly worrying expenditure of skilled man-months. Unfortunately the æsthetics of the results are so good that TeX/LaTeX are likely to keep being used for longer than you can imagine. I assumed it was obsolete when I wrote my first conversion script (from Nisus) in 1993. – Flash Sheridan Mar 29 '11 at 15:54
@Flash In fact I think that a redesign from scratch is highly in order but I doubt that this is going to happen soon. (La)TeX has enormous traction and is incredibly stable and creating a concurrence is almost certainly doomed to fail. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 29 '11 at 16:27

A question like this is of course open to discussion, and all I can offer here is mo own personal opinion and experience, but IMHO TeX is definitely not outdated.

It is true that word processors are getting better and better, and as they develop they will implement more and more features of TeX. In fact, TeXmacs implements most of the typesetting algorithms TeX does, and you can create certain type of documents in it that are impossible or nearly impossible to recognize from documents created by TeX.

The problem for me is all these tools lack the flexibility and extensibility of TeX. If I want to create a new type of document, or change a look of an existing one, it is relatively easy to do in TeX. I can create new document class, or write a simple or not so simple package, and then I can use it over and over again. Some word processors are also extensible and programmable, TeXmacs for example can be extended in scheme, but you have to learn another language to do that, while in TeX you use the same language to for the extensions as for the actual document, which I believe makes it much easier. Just compare the number of different packages for TeX with the number of plugins for TeXmacs, or layout files for LyX. I generally find word processors very limiting when trying to do new things.

Other great advantage of TeX for me is the fact that I can do all my editing in the same text editor I use to write code.

There are many things about TeX that could perhaps be done better, especially now when we have much more computing power, memory and other resources available. TeX may be eventually replaced by another programmatic system, that will perhaps use a more powerful or more mainstream programming language. Any such system, however, will have an uphill battle to fight, as it will have to replicate huge number of existing TeX formats, modules, document classes and packages, as well as existing TeX development environments (one reason I am not using ConTeXt more is that there is no equivalent of vim-latex for it. Now imagine a completely different language.)

In addition to all that, there is fairly good amount of active development going on in TeX, with new engines (XeTeX, LuaTeX), formats (ConTeXt, LaTeX3), powerful packages (for example pgf/tikz and related tools).

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which features of vim-latex do you miss for ConTeXt? I have some of my personal vim plugins at github. It provides basic syntax highlighting and indentation support; uses imap.vim from vim-latex to provide AucTeX like mappings for math mode (`` a `` to α` etc); and snippets.vim to provide TeXMate like snippets (for<TAB> expands to \startformula ... \stopformula. There is also a basic compiler plugin, but I haven't used that in a while. – Aditya Mar 29 '11 at 14:58

Apart from the things already said, the possibility to split the document into multiple files, reference external sources (e.g. images) and store it in VCS is a huge advantage over binary or even xml based file formats.

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One big factor in the future-proofness of TeX is its use in the academic environment. The apprenticeship of young scholars under established ones passes down not just the scientific methods but the technological ones. I realized this when emceeing a recent undergraduate mathematics research symposium. The talks in more biological fields were done in PowerPoint, but the ones in theoretical physics, combinatorics, knot theory, etc., were in LaTeX beamer. Between talks I remarked that it was good to see TeX is safe for another generation.

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And powerpoint, unlike Word, cannot handle equations inside sentences... – Chris Kuklewicz Mar 29 '11 at 11:48
@Konrad but then it's not possible to update the font which is an issue even for mac/word powerpoint presentations as the font is displayed slightly differently. – celenius Mar 29 '11 at 14:49
@celenius True. Still, LaTeX for presentations has enough disadvantages so that it balances out in favour of a modern presentation software, IMHO. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 29 '11 at 14:54
@Konrad yes, in general I agree. I mainly use Keynote personally, but for code or equation heavy presentations, I find latex more convenient. – celenius Mar 29 '11 at 14:58
@celenius I also use Keynote. Since you’re using OS X: do you know LaTeXit? It greatly facilitates working with formulae (or generally any LaTeX code) in Keynote. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 29 '11 at 15:00

All answers so far are good reasons to continue using TeX. One advantage not yet mentioned (and which will no doubt be seen as a disadvantage by many individual users) is the fact that it is batch-oriented, and reliably generates the same output from the same input in successive iterations. Hence it is admirably suited to production use for a technical publisher, in particular for journals. When authors submitting manuscripts to such a publisher have followed the publisher's guidelines and used the provided document classes, errors and misunderstandings are minimized and the resulting publication emerges faster and more accurately than when using other tools.

Technical typesetting is such a small niche market that it has always been called "penalty copy". Nobody is going to make a financial killing by developing a commercial tool, so the incentive to do so is very low.

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Batch-orientatednes is a valid point but I think it’s only important when the result does not rely on certain page layouts and arrangements. You can only do that if one article follows after another. When there are multiple articles next to each other on one page, for example, you’ll spend most of the time re-arranging the articles and the advantage of scripting it is gone. Then you can very well use a graphical DTP for that task and insert the texts manually. – Debilski Mar 29 '11 at 13:29

Although it is not polite to answer a question with a question, let me do that.

Just imagine that you want to change the font in your entire MS Word document. How to do that in all the formulas at once?

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This is actually not that hard if you use styles correctly. – Matthew Leingang Mar 29 '11 at 10:41
@MatthewLeingang I simply couldn't figure out how to use styles correctly. When I clicked somewhere, either nothing happened or something unexpected happened. Do you think I was getting it wrong or is Word 2007 still buggy in this feature? I've heard 2010 is much smarter. (Although this is quite off-topic here.) – marczellm Jan 30 '13 at 19:18
@marczellm: If you can find the style dialog box you'll see that styles can be derived from parent styles, and "Normal" is pretty much the root style (sometimes headers have different fonts). So you edit the Normal style to use a different font. The actual clicks and points are hard to describe since Word's interface changes from version to version, but that's the gist of what you want to do. – Matthew Leingang Jan 31 '13 at 19:06
@MatthewLeingang, that presuposes the writer even knows about the existence of styles in the first place... – vonbrand Jan 31 at 21:45

protected by Martin Scharrer Mar 29 '11 at 8:05

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