Why doesn’t everyone use LaTeX?

Being a scientist in a highly mathematical field, virtually all of my document preparation is done using LaTeX which makes typesetting mathematical expression quite simple, as well as effortless inclusion of tables and figures (graphs) with captions. These tasks can take herculean efforts in a what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) word processor, e.g. the universally loathed Microsoft Word. Sure, you can insert pictures and tables, but slightly change the wording in one place and suddenly the objects that you had painstakingly placed in particular locations jump to different pages and like Sisyphus, you find yourself at the bottom of the hill having to push that boulder up again. So, why doesn’t everyone use LaTeX?

First, let’s talk about what LaTeX is, and why it is a much better way to prepare documents than Word. LaTeX is a typesetting program that reads plain text files with mark-up language to specify sections of the text, formatting of blocks of text, as well as the overall formatting of the document. This means that when you’re writing a document, you don’t worry about the fussy bits of formatting, instead, you focus on the content of your document. When you want to include a figure/plot you enter the mark-up language that tells LaTeX that you want to include a particular file in a floating figure environment, specify the caption, give it a label for easy referencing that automatically updates the figure number should you insert or remove a previous figure, and your done. LaTeX, when processing your document, will encounter the command and then place it at the top or bottom of a page close to where you placed the command in your text file (the same goes for tables as well). Need to change some text? No worries! Your figure is unlikely to move for small changes in the text, and even if it does, it will still be exactly at the top or bottom of a page which prevents it from breaking up the flow of the text.

LaTeX is powerful, easy to use, and you don’t worry too much about the formatting. Its very nature encourages you to focus on the content first. Then, after compilation, you can fiddle with formatting if you want. The best part is that it is very easy to globally change formatting options so that everything is consistent in the entire document, no matter then length. LaTeX also makes it easy to break up the text into different files which can get compiled together to form a single document in the end. For example, if you are writing a book, each chapter can be a separate file, that way if you need to change something in a specific chapter, you don’t have to search through a behemoth of document to locate a specific line of text, just the individual chapter. Have a business and want all of your documents to be formatted consistently? Write a custom LaTeX class specifying that format, then your employees simply type \documentclass{MyBizClass} at the top of their files, and when they compile, all your formatting will be applied. In a WYSIWYG word processor, you can create templates for people to use, but they can always change the template intentionally or unintentionally.

I could go on at length with examples of why everyone should use LaTeX, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is why aren’t people using it.

There are certainly numerous reasons for the pervasiveness of Microsoft Word even though it barely manages to do the job it is supposed to, and I’m sure I’m not touching on all of them. However, here are some of my thoughts. First, it’s what most of us are introduced to when we begin preparing documents on a computer. Second, it’s built in to the Microsoft ecosystem, and since they dominate the operating system market, their software dominates in other areas as well. Third, no one advertises LaTeX or even free open-source alternative word processors because their budgets for advertising are exactly zero. Now, as I mentioned, this is not an extensive list by any means, just a few key points. Let’s examine them in detail below.

1. It’s what we know

I’m old enough to remember a time when most people didn’t own computers. It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s until my family had its first computer, on which my parents had to install Microsoft Windows 3.1. We occasionally used computers in school, but it wasn’t until high school that teachers expected typed reports. When we learned about typing and preparing documents with a computer, we were taught how to do so in Word. We were taught to fuss with formatting, teachers specifying margins, point size of the font, and even the typeface. We were taught to laboriously format our references to fit with a specific style guide. We were taught to spend more time worrying about these things than the actual content of the report because it’s easier for a teacher to take off points for objective things like formatting, than subjective things like quality of the content.

Those who are even old than I am probably had their first exposure to computers at work, where the company they work for probably paid for a Microsoft Office license for their computers. This means that when they had to teach themselves, or were ‘taught’ how to create documents for work, they were probably taught how to do so in Word. They too probably got scolded by bosses if a particular format wasn’t followed exactly, again leading to a focus more on format than content.

Thus, we were all taught in some way that document preparation on a computer means using a WYSIWYG word processor. Once people know one tool, its difficult to get them to use another, especially when it comes to computers. Try it yourself if you don’t believe me. Try switching to a different web browser. For the first few minutes you’ll probably feel completely lost, maybe even kind of feel like it’s the first time you’ve every touched a computer. Sure, that goes away pretty quick, but in a web browser you mostly just need to be able to enter a URL, after which the interactions occur on a per web page basis. For formatting text in a word processor, you need access to menus and submenus, and options will be in different places in Word than in LibreOffice Writer. Trying to get people to use LaTeX requires doing something that looks somewhat like computer programming, a task which scares the ‘average’ user. The net effect, most people use Word because they always have.

2. It’s built in to the Microsoft ecosystem

When it comes to computers, people want it to just work. Most people know very little about their computers, or how computers in general work, and this makes them slightly scared of computers in a way. The computer is a black-box that magically makes things happen, and they don’t want to have to figure out why the black-box isn’t doing what they want it too. So, people want to easily install a program that will allow them to create documents, they don’t want to figure out how to get things to work, they just want it too work. Every Microsoft computer will come with trial versions of Office, or at least a small program that runs constantly prompting you to buy Office. In the days of yore, many computers actually came with Microsoft Works (a stripped down version of Office with fewer features) for ‘free’, i.e. the cost was included in your purchase price though this often would have amounted to about $2 or $3.

So, if you want software that just works, and you’re most likely using a computer with a Microsoft operating system, then Word is the obvious (read easy) choice. Just a few clicks, enter some credit card information and you have your familiar way of creating documents on your computer. Finding an alternative requires researching what is available, which leads down a rabbit.

You find other paid alternatives, but if you’re going to pay anyway, why not just get Office? After all, most other people are very likely to be using Office, and there are at least fewer problems with opening .doc/.docx files on different systems all using Word than on systems running other software. Then there are the free open source software alternatives, where your research often turns up flame wars about which is better, and many of the reasons given make no sense to the ‘average’ user so it just confuses them and turns them off to the idea all together. As far as LaTeX, there is an even larger barrier to entry. First you have to get a LaTeX distribution installed, which involves deciding between (assuming you’re running Windows) MikTeX, TeXLive, or proTeXt, and probably others. Then, since most users don’t like using a command line, you’ll want an integrated development evironment (IDE) to use with your LaTeX distribution, which presents the user with another glut of choices, more flame wars, and more confusion.

In other words, the path of least resistance is the one that leads to Microsoft Office.

3. No advertising

Chances are, you’ve seen a commercial for Microsoft Office. When it was launching, I think almost every other commercial I saw was for Office 365. When was the last time you saw a commercial for LaTeX? I can safely bet that would be never. If no one knows about LaTeX, how can we expect them to use LaTeX? I didn’t know about LaTeX until my senior year as an undergraduate. It was introduced to me in my senior level lab course in the syllabus where it was mentioned that lab reports could be prepared in Word or LaTeX. Had I not been a physics major, I’m sure I could have gone my entire college career without hearing about LaTeX.

Even after that initial introduction and figuring out what LaTeX was, I didn’t start using it until grad school. I’ll admit that at the time, it seemed too difficult to learn, and wasn’t particularly easy to start using in Windows. I tried early in my graduate studies, gave up, and only when I started writing a paper for publication did I finally learn LaTeX. Of course, by then I had seen the light and started using a GNU/Linux distribution so it was much easier since the distribution came with a LaTeX distribution pre-installed.

In short, with out some campaign to raise public awareness, most will live their whole life not knowing anything about LaTeX. If they don’t know about it, they can’t use it. Additionally, even if they are made aware of it, without someone to teach them how to use it, it will likely seem too difficult for them to start.

In the end, I think the major contributors to the lack of LaTeX adoption are momentum, path-of-least-resistance mentality, and ignorance (in the sense of not knowing about something, not meaning that they are stupid). What do you think? Do you use LaTeX? If so, what made you switch? If not, why not? What are your ideas on the primary reason(s) people don’t use LaTeX or that they do use Word? Let me know in the comments!


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