624 words on TeX
Back in the early 1990s I was introduced to the TEX typesetting system. And while I was fascinated by word processing at the time and thought that using the Grot-3D or Data 70 fonts with Signum on the Atari ST was pretty cool, this was a completely different game in so many ways!
The first thing to discover was that TEX could do all that maths stuff. While I guess I didn’t have particularly much real use for that back then, it certainly was amazing. Once you got your head around a few commands the computer would magically put lines, letters and numbers of different sizes together and create ‘exciting’ fomulæ. But there was more magic: running headers, footnotes, all sorts of numbering, tables of contents, dashes of different lengths, friggin’ ligatures! And if you hadn’t had enough with that you could even define your own commands.
In short, TEX totally rocked back then. Simply because it could do things that you hadn’t seen before. (And TEX was already a teenager by then). And, generally, I think TEX held up rather well over time. Sure, other applications may have reached some of TEX’s features over time: formula editors (which admittedly suck) in many word processors, support for technical writing in applications like Frame Maker or non-trivial line-breaking in applications like InDesign. And most of the others offer more appealing user interaction on the first sight, but if you can adjust to that, you’ll find that TEX holds up rather well.
Apart from the decent typesetting results, TEX is growing to arrive in the modern times in terms of the file formats it accepts for input and output. And with the more powerful computers we have these days, also limitations in the features TEX can provide in a single run seem to have fallen.
I think TEX is holding up rather well here. And that’s before we even touch all the technical niceties: Plain text file input that is extremely long lasting. Which other files from 15 years ago can you still use today? What’s the complexity of those files? How closely can you reproduce what you got back then? (Just compare TEX and HTML for a laugh’s sake…) And of course plain text offers all sorts of easy ways to automatically generating new files or using versioning systems on your files with the ability reasonably highlight the differences between versions.
Finally there’s the availability: TEX is as open as it can possibly be. You can get the source code and you can use it. Even better, it is code which is non-trivial and took quite a bit of research to come up with. Still it is available. And not just that. It’s even extensively documented and the author made a point of supporting it - even financially, by ‘paying’ people for bug reports - for a long time. Compare that to most of today’s ‘open source’ software which only rarely offers any of these benefits. Or to ‘closed source’ software which offers slightly different but not exactly more benefits albeit at a price. Apple paying you for finding bugs in their software? Microsoft making a serious effort that your Office files will be available to you in the future? Open source projects that aren’t byzantine? Laugh on…
While TEX is relatively constant, its surroundings aren’t. Running TEX posed different levels of a challenge over time and I will try to outline a part of how things changed and improved (or got worse) over time in the coming days.
Next: TEX on the Atari ST
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