debate about Free software for the ACT Government

Simon Fowler simon at
Thu Apr 25 17:51:15 EST 2002

On Thu, Apr 25, 2002 at 01:59:58PM +1000, Alex Satrapa wrote:
> On Thursday, April 25, 2002, at 10:43 , Simon Fowler wrote:
> >You type stuff in, do some formatting with mouse/toolbars/etc, save, 
> >print, that kind of thing. How mnay people actually /use/ things like 
> >stylesheets in word? And how long would
> >it take to pick up those differences when needed?
> That's exactly the kind of attitude I don't want to see.  The reason 
> Word is so good is that is supports stylesheets.  My favourite 
> configuration for Word removes all the "text formatting" buttons from 
> the toolbars and leaves me with the useful things - revision, comment 
> and index buttons, and the style picker.
> HTML uses CSS now.  Latex document production uses stylesheets, Word 
> uses styles.
> I am almost overcome by violent urges everytime I see someone formatting 
> a Word document using "bold" and "underline" rather than setting the 
> style to "Heading 1".
Yes yes yes . . . I realise stylesheets are wonderful, but their
existence doesn't actually change my argument: are they used
normally, and how hard is it to pick up the differences the
introduce between different programs?

That's my point - if you want an 'ideal' word processing
environment, something like LyX is probably an order of magnitude
better than Word or any other WYSIWYG system, simply because you
/have/ to think about the structure of the document, rather than the
details of the layout. But the traditional word processing model
/hasn't/ been like that, and even with people who are extremely
experienced with word, the structure oriented model is quite
different. It's also quite consistent between the various word
processors that are out there - hence my assertion that switching
between them isn't that hard.

Switching between LyX and Word + stylesheets would probably be
reasonably easy, because the models are similar. And again my
argument applies.
> >It's not like a switch betwee Word and LyX, where the models behind
> >the programs are completely different . . .
> If done properly, the models are quite similar - stick to the predefined 
> styles, and use stylesheet based formatting, not character formatting.
> In fact, I'd like to see at least two separate categories for "Microsoft 
> Word" expertise - indicating whether the person is a 
> character-formatting troll, or a stylesheet using demigod.
> The skills (or more importantly - the discipline) of the latter would 
> make them more versatile, since they can carry those concepts across to 
> HTML, XML, LaTeX and other tools.  Character-based formatting in Word 
> means you end up becoming entirely reliant upon that interface to be 
> able to produce documents.
Bingo - there's my argument again. Switching between systems that
work on the same model is fairly simple, or at least quite doable,
and certainly far simpler than changing between different models. 

> So perhaps part of the process of freeing oneself from the Microsoft 
> hegemony is to learn the abstract skills and disciplines such as knowing 
> the general structure of "a letter", and knowing how to apply the styles 
> (eg: Subject, Address, List Level 1) that are used in "a letter" - 
> rather than knowing that in Word, you use this specific template, format 
> this line to Helvetica 18pt bold, that line to 13pt Arial Round, etc.
I couldn't agree more. That's one reason I don't like word
processors - my preference these days is either emacs and LaTeX, or

So, we actually agree on the basic point (aside from the superiority
of structure based document development): when you have the same
model of operation between systems, it's generally quite easy to
switch between them. So, why use Word rather than LyX? Or Word
rather than WordPerfect? Or Word rather than StarWrite (or whatever
they call it)? The simple answer is compatibility, and that's what
we should be aiming at - use a standard format that a large
selection of programs can handle, and then let people use whatever
they like. 

In this day and age, the only real candidate is HTML, though XML may
fit the bill given support for a particular DTD. As long as it's
open and as many programs as possible can handle it, make it a
standard. And /that's/ what we should be telling the politicians: 
"Decide on open standards for document formats and protocols and so 
forth, and then put things out to tender, or let people follow their 
preferences where appropriate". 

As with document preparation systems, if you get the model right
everything else should follow fairly easily . . .


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