Word vs. LaTeX and other meaningless comparisons

Comparisons of wordprocessors to LaTeX tend to miss the point, the two are informed by different philosophies of authorship and document preparation.

This is also not a Word vs. LaTeX piece. But I would like to unpack what seems to be a fundamental missunderstanding made by many of the pro-Word 'Word vs. LaTeX' folk. LaTeX is not a word-processor. I will say that again to aid retention: LaTeX is not a word-processor. Trying to compare LaTeX vs. Word is not even like trying to compare apples to oranges--at least those are both a type of fruit--it would be more like trying to compare a symphony orchestra to a kidney. Or something. I'm having trouble coming up with a good analogy since there is little analogy between Word and LaTex. The point of this post is to help increase awareness that the monolithic word-processor model is not the only model for document preparation, and it isn't even a particularly good model for many modern needs. This highlights the real problem with the so called word-processing wars: the assumption that a monolithic word-processor is The One True Way of document preparation and the tendency to conclude that any tools that do not fit The One True Way are somehow less "efficient."

LaTeX is a typesetting engine as well as a set of commands that describe how to typeset text. Both MS Word and LaTeX are part of a document preparation system, MS Word includes a typesetting engine and a set of commands to describe how to typeset text, but it also includes more. More is not necessarily better. But this distinction is what makes some arguments so inappropriate. In response to a fundamentally flawed "research study" that concluded Word was "more efficient," LuAnne Thompson and Angie Pendergrass tweeted

Two problems here (or from Microsoft's viewpoint, raging successes): Did I mention LaTeX isn't a word-processor? It's also not a text editor, so a text editor is necessary for using LaTeX as part of a document preparation workflow. Spell checking is a process usually done while composing text in a text editor, not during typesetting, which is what LaTeX does. If you want spell checking capabilities your system-wide spell-checker (is it true that you still need to download a separate utility to get system-wide spell checking in Windows? That seems archaic.) should work with any text editor. The second problem/win-for-microsoft: "word ... is the only way to go". As if MS Word is the only way to use a spell-checker. Since MS Word has a spell-checker built into it.

It's not really about LaTeX vs. Word

Replace Word with Apple's Pages, or LibreOffice Writer. They're all the same, following the Microsoft model of software design: combine all conceivable functionality a user might need into a single program, give it a [WIMP] user interface to ostensibly make all the features discoverable. This design philosophy was fueled in part by Microsoft's business model: swallow up any third-party utilities (e.g., spell checkers and grammar checkers and make them part of word)

A monopoly of thought

At its core this issue is not so much a monopoly of tool as it is a monopoly of thought regarding what documents are for and how they are prepared.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

The engineering workflow

The workflow for which LaTeX was designed is one which values finding the best tool for the job, where "best" might mean something slightly different for everyone, thus this workflow is about people making choices that are right for them. I choose what text editor to use to interact with my text, I choose what bibliography manager to use (as long as it can export a BibTex file, and most can),

The tools are not perfect

LaTeX syntax is verbose and can be confusing at times. The BibTeX format has some issues. 99% of the time LaTeX does The Right Thing when positioning floats, but when it doesn't it's a pain to micro-manage.