I was thinking the other day about the way we produced documents in the mid 1980’s. It was kicked off by hp setting up a competition to find the oldest laser printer still working.
I headed a product development centre in those days and we had purchased one. I had been thinking of buying a line printer in order to enable our programmers to print out their code and put it into binders. I was approached by our hp “sales lady”, who enticed me with a fast A4 printer. It had been the custom to use specialist line printer paper and purchase special binders to store it it, but I had realised this would make it simpler to print code on A4 and put them in standard binders rather than the more expensive specialist ones, and I duly ordered this new printer. It turned out to be one of my better decisions.
What I had not counted on was that we were introducing VDUs on to everyone’s desk for the first time, and therefore suddenly there was a lot less of a requirement for producing paper code listings. However, one of my team created a set of macros for nroff which enabled people to write documents in a text editor, which when processed produced very high quality documentation on the laser printer. For a number of years my team produced documentation that looked as though it had been produced at a professional print shop – when the rest of the company were still using IBM manual typewriters and snowpake.
It was not until several years later that we stopped using that system, at the point when it started becoming feasible to put a PC on everyone’s desk running Microsoft Word. Although we could now do graphics easier (the only large achilles heel of the nroff system) we lost a lot in the consistency of our documentation.
The closest today in lyx. a WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean) type of system – but I have a slightly different vision. I would like something that
uses docbook xml as the native underlying language provides template based style sheets (using xml formating objects?) which can show how each sort of document should look on screen and printer provide WYSIWYG editing of the style sheets.
UPDATE June 2010. Some years later and I haven’t done anything with this thought. The one big change is SVG (scalable vector graphics) which in essence is a text system to embed drawings.
UPDATE November 2012: I have just come across latex – but perhaps more importantly the tikz library package that allows you to draw high quality graphics in that environment. A few experiments later and I am able to produce some high quality documents in a house style. Its not what I was envisaging in 2004, but interestingly the underlying quality of those original 1980s days is surpassed and for the first time with graphics support all in a mechanism that can be properly version controlled with git. I am developing my house styles as I write this and intend to make it my primary writing environment for the future.