Who wants LaTeX export in TechWriter?By Martin Hansen. Published: 7th Jul 2007, 21:12:00 | Permalink | Printable
Martin Hansen explains why he wants to give Martin Wuerthner 100 quidOpinion - One of the jewels in the RISC OS crown is TechWriter from Icon Technology. As a mathematician, this outstanding program is the principal reason I have continued to use RISC OS. TechWriter is a wordprocessor for the scientifically minded. It allows equations, text and diagrams to be mixed in one document in a fluid and effortless manner that, combined with the RISC OS graphical user interface, makes it a genuine killer application. I have been forced to used Microsoft's Word and its Equation Editor at work: it's slow and awkward. TechWriter is brilliant. It can even export its documents as Word files. It is better at producing Word documents with equations embedded than Word itself.
In recent years, Martin Wuerthner, the well known and talented programmer behind ArtWorks pictured here, has taken over responsibility for TechWriter's ongoing development. Last year he added a facility to allow TechWriter documents to be exported as PDF, a format anyone can read. RISC OS users had been able to write and view PDF documents for several years, but Martin tidied up the process, made it easier for the less experienced to install on their machines, enhanced the quality of the PDF files written, and seamlessly integrated it all into TechWriter. Excellent.
His work on adding PDF file export came at a good moment for me. I teach maths to GCSE and A-level students. So-called Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are the latest buzz in education. Homework tasks, worksheets, lesson notes and exercises are to be posted online, perhaps in a closed school system, perhaps on the Internet. Being able to convert my TechWriter files into high-quality PDFs for uploading into such systems reinforced my view that RISC OS and TechWriter are worth sticking with for a while yet. The PDF file export feature is so good that I feel guilty that the upgrade only cost me 20 quid. It was worth far more than that to me.
Given that TechWriter is still under active development, what feature would its users most like to see added to the program? Martin has an excellent track record of asking his audience exactly that question and last Christmas users got a chance to vote upon what they would most like to see implemented next. Since that poll I've become acutely aware of what I consider to be a major shortcoming of TechWriter. I'd like to explain what that is. I have a theory that sometimes an enhancement has an importance beyond the number of votes it can amass in a poll. You are welcome to disagree with me, but first consider my case.
TechWriter, by it's very nature, has amongst its users a number who use it to submit scientific and mathematical articles to academic publishers. Increasingly, what is happening in the academic world is that a submission on paper or even as a PDF is not good enough. A file format known as LaTeX is what publishers demand.
No rubber involved
The reason for this is reasonable enough: receiving submissions as LaTeX files keeps typesetting costs down. It is easy for a book or journal publisher to apply a house style to a submission written in LaTeX. For authors too, LaTeX makes sense. You focus on what you actually want to say rather than being constantly distracted by having to layout and format your work as you go along. It is possible to produce LaTeX documents using RISC OS but one has to write the LaTeX script by hand. There is no slick front-end available. As an author, one of the main reasons to use LaTeX is lost.
Martin Wurthner is himself aware that TechWriter is the perfect candidate to be RISC OS's LaTeX file writer. He recently explained: "It would be perfectly logical to add LaTeX file export to TechWriter since the whole structure is close to how LaTeX works."
Tex, drugs and rock'n'roll
Intriguingly, even early versions of TechWriter can export a document in a file format known as TeX. This is the forerunner of LaTeX. The transition from TeX to LaTeX has been so smooth and many PC users talk about TeX files when they really mean LaTeX files.
TeX file code is pretty fierce stuff to look at. LaTeX is much more refined. Such is the determination of a handful of TechWriter's loyal users to continue using TechWriter that there now exist a couple of brave programming attempts that will take TechWriters TeX output and translate it into a crude sort of LaTeX. This is far from ideal. It's a sticking plaster on a festering wound. It has occurred to me that the whole LaTeX situation is similar to how it was with PDF before Martin Wuerthner moved in and sorted the sorry mess out.
With this in mind I recently asked Martin if he would consider adding LaTeX file export to TechWriter. He replied by first explaining that adding a major new feature could cost well over a thousand pounds. Finding the time to implement my requested feature was also a problem. He felt that time spent addressing LaTeX file export would be time that would not be spent adding features that more users would find useful. He thought that around 5 percent of the active TechWriter user base, perhaps 10 percent, would be enthusiastic about adding LaTeX file export. Tantalisingly he added that it was still possible that he would tackle it one day when he felt like it. Objectively, he felt it would be a foolish thing to do.
RISC OS has a commendable reputation for rallying around a worthy cause. Take the RISC OS porting project, for example. Part of my motivation in writing this article is to try and ascertain how many of us feel that adding LaTeX file export to TechWriter would be good for RISC OS. I, personally, feel that this enhancement is so important that I'm be willing to pledge £100 towards seeing this feature added. I feel it is vital that RISC OS start gaining ground in the areas it is already strong in: Playing to its strengths.
TechWriter is one of our finest applications and the thought of it being an all bangs and whistles LaTeX file writer is, in my opinion, something that would start to get RISC OS noticed again. What do you think?
Icon Technology website
All about LaTeX
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