I don’t mean blog posts or emails. For blog posts I use souped up gedit, and for emails I use pico. (There was a time when I thought I’d be using emacs for both of those, but emacs suffers from a deep philosophical dysfunction.) I’m talking about longer documents that have sections with headings, bibliographies, etc. I may well make this transition with the never-ending paper I’m writing with Lizzie.
It is hard to describe the difference between what are called markup systems and, say Microsoft Word, OpenOffice.org Writer, or AbiWord to people, especially to some of the newer people who were not initially weaned on ed. And, it is especially hard to explain LyX. But I’ll give it a go.
Word processors such as those just mentioned have you putting letters and white space on a virtual sheet of paper, formatting (type setting, really) these words and white spaces as you wish. The page you see on the screen is like the page that will be printed out on the default printer for your computer (though it will look different on any other printer or computer, likely) or if made into a PDF file (for software with that capability).
Word processors ALSO have features such as cross referencing, making a table of contents, etc. You can insert graphics, and make tables. Etc. That does not make something a word processor in modern parlance. A word processor can not have those features, and something with those features is not necessarily a word processor.
There is a different category of “processing words” (as it were) known as “markup.” Early word processors were markup systems, but today when we use the word “word processor” we always mean the “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) software. Anybody ever use WordStar? Where .pa at the beginning of a line meant “page break” for instance? In WordStar you could see the text you wrote, then you could see the formatting commands that go along with the text, which changed the way the text was rendered.
You may also remember WordPerfect, which had an on screen version of the text that showed italics and bold and stuff (if you had the right graphic card) but also had a “reveal codes” features that let you see the markup codes.
Back then, in pre Windows times, was also xywrite. This was a markup system capable of handling documents of arbitrary size (in computer speak “arbitrary” means “any”) and was very stable and very fast. xywrite was the “typesetting” software used by many major publishers.
Each of these early word processors eventually evolved a “what you see is what you get” version that would run on Windows, just before being killed off by Microsoft Word. Word dominated the market and took over for two reasons. 1) It never looked like a markup system. It always only showed you WYSIWYG versions of your document. This made some people happy, other people nervous, but as usual, the happy people won. Damn them; and 2) Microsoft cheated, lied, cajoled, payed off, threatened, and bribed as needed to makes sure their product took over even though it was not nearly as good as WordPerfect at any moment that the two products existed side by side. I assume.
So that was the end of markup for the average person.
But, back in those days, there were other markup systems that never made the transition to WYSIWYG implementation. Nobody wanted them to make this transition and there was no need for this transition. One of these systems was Tex, run on Unix, and it’s variant LaTex (the details of this history will be glossed here, but if you search for TeX and LaTex on the internet you will find more than you will want to know about that).
The way these markup systems work in their most basic form is that you produce a text file with markup in it, which will render a certain layout of words and whitespace when printed. Usually, your first printings are into a format that is not on paper but rather electronic and on your hard drive, and you can look at this version to see if it is what you want before sending it to your printer, usually as a PDF file.
LyX is a bit of software (they call it a “document processor”) that is a little bit in between a text file with markup and a WYSIWYG word processor. It allows the user to enter text, spell check it, format it, make cross references and stuff, and so on, but the on screen version of the document you are working on is not what is going to show up when printed or converted to a PDF or whatever. To see that you press a button and the document is re-rendered into a visible format exactly representing the final form. When you are done with the document, you can turn it into something on paper, a PDF file, and HTML document, whatever whatever.
In other words LyX in a fairly easy to use graphical interface for Tex/LaTex documents.
One of the things that makes people go gaga over LyX and Tex and Latex is that it works great for mathematical formulas. This is a problem for me because I hardly ever need to work with mathematical formulas. But, any manual, any on line information, etc. about LyX, TeX, or LaTex is about one third or more about mathematical formulas.
Why would you NOT use a WYSIWYG word processor for a document that has several sections, several graphics and tables, and is a hundred pages long or so with a table of contents and references?
Have you tried to do that? And you still don’t know why you would want to avoid, say Microsoft Word or even OpenOffice.org Writer for such a thing?
Here, have some more of this: