The State of TUG

Michel Goossens
Geneva, Switzerland

This is the beginning of a new year, and my first thoughts go to you and your families. I wish you all the very best for 1997. I hope that the coming months will bring you happiness, success, and above all good health. May all your long-lasting dreams come true!

Are those computers helping us?

Fewer than three years separate us from the day when the first digit of the year becomes a two, and thousands of pages have already been written about the disaster that will descend upon all file systems when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st 1999. It is feared that algorithms for storing date and time for files and other information will break down at that very moment. I am convinced that, with still more than a thousand days to go, a solution will be found. Yet the bill to fix this "trivial" problem will certainly run into the billions of dollars, and users and system managers all over the world will have to patch or upgrade their software.

The reason I mention this is to show the vulnerability of our modern lifestyle to quite small problems in the functioning of the software or hardware of computers that are controlling almost every aspect of human society. Digital telephone exchanges, satellite channels, fly-by-wire planes and steer-by-wire ships, alarm systems used by police and fire brigades, life-survival systems in hospitals, surveillance systems, computers for predicting the weather, handling data of the stock-market, controlling mobile telephones and other huge databases..., the list goes on and on. How much time, money and human lives have been lost when a single element in one of these electronic chains malfunctions. In many cases the main problem is a mismatch between man and machine: planes have fallen out of the sky and nuclear power plants have gone awry, putting the lives of hundreds of people in jeopardy.

It has become clear that computer tools and programs have not lived up to their expectations. Both developers and users of these systems overestimated their capabilities in the field of integration and streamlining human tasks. At the same time they underestimated the need for training and planning to benefit optimally from these complex tools.

Everybody goes global

Over the last few years we have observed an exponential increase in the number of people connected to the Internet, and every school, administration, indeed every "self-respecting" body in every country now has its Web server. Tens of millions of surfers have spent hours, if not the equivalent of days, in front of their computer screens, jumping in hyper-space from the text of the first act of Macbeth, to a .gif image of the Queen, an MPEG movie of the pictures sent back by the Hubble Space telescope, a quick tour of the Caribbean to plan the next holiday -- or just to dream -- before turning to the weather forecast, the timetable of trains or plains, a map of the next town you want to visit, the list of software tools you need to solve your son's school assignment, or the offerings of the universities in California where your daughter wants to attend college next term. All this information is there, at your fingertips, one or two clicks away. Of course, you also want to be part of it, to be there where the action is. So you decide to be present on the Net with your CV, complemented with a list of publications, a few of them online in PostScript, or even HTML, plus a picture of Family -- Wife, Kids, Labrador Jessy, and Tiger, the cat -- it is now a must, part of our cyber-culture. Everybody with a phone line can connect to the Global Village at almost no cost, and Internet providers are queueing at your (virtual) door to offer their services.

Billion of bytes at your fingertips

In parallel with the spread of cheap computer connections we have witnessed an equally significant development in the form of the ubiquity of the CD-ROM. These days, almost no computer is sold without this little technological marvel included. Each of these little 12 cm plates weighing a mere 18 grams can contain about 700 million characters, enough to run most of today's applications. The Britannica or Microsoft's Encarta are but two titles amongst several dozen encyclopaedia which give us instantaneous access to an enormous wealth of data and pictures wherever we are. Almost every conceivable form of information has been or is being made available on CD-ROM, and complete distributions of programs or data, which would take hours to down-load via a MODEM, can be sent for the price of a letter to all those who need them. Moreover, CD-ROM recorders have become affordable (today you can buy a good model for about $500, and prices continue to fall) so that everyone can now store on such a CD 700 Mbytes of data: programs, your family photo album in JPEG, your holiday movie in MPEG, or, perhaps more practically, a backup of your hard-disk.

Yet, this is only the beginning. Computers are now on sale which contain custom chips for a direct interpretation of MPEG (a spin-off of high definition television), and in a couple of years it will be possible to use the new-generation high-definition television set for all kinds of tasks, from browsing the Internet over optical cable at speeds of several Mbytes/sec, to playing complete films with sound in quadraphony. You will be able to enjoy an opera as though you were sitting in the Metropolitan. The Digital Versatile Disk (DVD), a new generation CD-ROM, is able to store between 4.5 and some 18 Gbytes of data, thanks to three technological breakthroughs: shorter laser wavelengths, two-face recording, and writing multiple vertical layers. This allows for a three-hour feature film, and also opens up a whole series of new possibilities in the field of multimedia.

TeX and the Global Village

But what about TeX and TUG in all this? If you look at the number of members of our Organization over the years [See TUGboat 17(4)], you observe that after a build-up in the mid-eighties, the membership stabilized in the range of 3000-4000 members, but has fallen by about 10--20%/year since 1991. The rise of TeX about ten years ago coincides with the time when more and more people began to be exposed to the personal computer, while the mainframe was still very important. For the first time scientific secretaries, professors, and students had easy access to a computer and were able to typeset scientific documents themselves, obtaining at the same time an appreciable improvement of the generated printed text. TeX became the de-facto standard in the world of mathematics at about that time, and even today many mathematicians send TeX code via email to their colleagues when discussing their work.

But since then local and wide-area networks have diminished the dependence on centralized systems, and most of what a TeX user needs can be transferred conveniently from CTAN, or copied from one of the TeX CD-ROMs now on sale. Today, publishers prefer commercial systems, such as Word, FrameMaker, PageMaker, or Quark Express, since they provide good control on the layout of the final page, or use SGML-based systems, since they allow easy integration of the information in databases, and its re-use in various forms. While TeX is still the text-processing engine in some WYSIWYG products like Scientific Word, other tools, like Mathematica, claim to have developed a better presentation engine for showing text and mathematics on screen, and they provide various output formats, such as TeX, HTML, and PostScript.

Donald Knuth has often wondered why developers have not taken his work in the TeX arena further and come up with extensions in those areas where TeX seemed to have shortcomings. It is only recently that eTeX and Omega have started to address some of these problems, but a lot of progress still remains to be made to adapt TeX fully to the needs of the "Windows Generation", where everything is controlled via a visual user interface. The batch-like behavior of TeX confuses many people and, although the quality of the output generated by TeX is in many cases still far better than that obtained by other text processors, its non-intuitive interface, its steep learning curve and, above all, the intricacies to control the micro-layout, in particular to place material precisely on the page, turn off most new and younger users. They prefer the easier-to-use and more intuitive WYSIWYG systems, which, moreover, are better integrated with the system environment, and allow easy cut and paste between various office applications.

Fewer members, bigger tasks

So, what can we do? I am convinced that the majority of the present TUG members have been with us for a long time. We seem to have lost members because they have changed activities and no longer need TeX in their professional life, or are convinced that other tools can do a text processing job as good as TeX. Another fact is that in the early nineties, when membership numbers began to decline, "local" TeX user groups were set up in France (GUTenberg), Germany (DANTE), the Netherlands (NTG), the Nordic countries (NTUG), and the United Kingdom (UKTUG). It goes without saying that such groups can serve their local user communities better (and more cheaply), so that we expect that a fraction of our members transferred to those groups instead. Finally, economic considerations have also played a role, and we must accept that many may find it more difficult these days to write that $55 cheque, since other priorities have overtaken the importance of TUG membership.

For the past few years we have witnessed a drop in the number of people attending TeX conferences. It is also proving ever more difficult to find volunteers for participating in working groups or other TeX -related activities. If you look at the present members of the TUG Board, you will recognize well-known names from the TeX world. However, no young new blood has been found in the last three or four years to take part in running TUG or to work on TUGboat. Last year we had only one candidate for six open Board positions. This year we need at least five people to step forward to serve for a four-year term on the Board together with the five remaining members. And there is also a new President to be chosen. Too many good and experienced experts have left the active TeX world, and very few newcomers have replaced them. We need enthusiasm, expertise, willingness to serve the TeX community, and this is a plea to you, dear reader, to make your voice heard and to show your active support of the TeX community.

The TUG Board by itself cannot perform miracles. Our respective employers demand an ever-increasing portion of our time, and at work TeX is rapidly losing ground compared with HTML editors, which turn electronic texts directly into globally accessible information, with the poor quality of the printed output considered as a tolerable evil (who wants to print, anyway...). If we do not want to disappear into oblivion, we shall have to adapt to the Internet paradigm and accept that other text processors can also put words on the page or screen. We must try and live in symbiosis with these systems, and see how we can help TeX users in those areas of the world where publicly available tools are still important (although freely available HTML editors are already commonplace on most computer platforms). TUG should emphasize Internet access (via ftp, WWW), produce TeX CD-ROMs, and continue to publish TUGboat, which should become a journal not only for the experienced TeX user, but also for the novice. We should also open up its columns more and more to what is happening in the field of document handling at large.

Actions have been taken

TUG's income depends to a large extent on membership contributions (See TUGboat 17(4)). Recently, we have observed a decline in membership, and during the same period the office staff has been reduced. At first we were working with an Executive Director plus two clerical staff, and, since the end of 1995, with just the ED. But even this expense TUG can no longer afford, since the cost of renting office space, telephone, computer equipment, and the payroll of one staff member is too large compared to income. Considering the fact that printing costs for TUGboat and, above all, postage (both domestic and overseas) have increased by almost 30%, we just do not have enough money in the bank to go on like this. We can no longer solely rely on donations by individuals of other user groups to carry out our tasks. TUG must have proper funds to allow it to buy computer hardware and pay for Internet services. Therefore, as of January 1st 1997 the TUG Office will be only staffed half time.

I would like to thank Ms. Monohon for her work during the five years she has run the TUG office, and I wish her all the best for the future. TUG appreciates it very much that she has agreed to act as contact person for the upcoming TUG'97 Conference in San Francisco in the Summer.

Since we must optimize our human resources, we must prioritize the office duties by concentrating first on essential administrative tasks. Questions directly related to TUG (membership status, TUGboat subscriptions, etc.) should preferably be sent via electronic mail to the address Only those without easy email access should try to send a fax or phone. Technical support questions should be addressed to the vendor or developer of your TeX software (if commercial) or put to the newsgroup comp.text.tex on Usenet. TUG can act as a backup on behalf of users with commercial vendors regarding software if there are problems of a general nature.

We have done well, but with your help we have to move on

TeX and TUG have come of age, and they are adults now. TeX can live a life by itself, and nowadays every user should be able to get TeX running without needing the help of a "TeX guru" to install the system. Commercial and free plug-and-play TeX installations are now available from several sources, and, as outlined above, it is clear that TeX users no longer need to handle "nuts and bolts" of the TeX engine but only need to worry about choosing the color of the LaTeXe Cadillac amongst a palette as varied as a rainbow. Today's TeX users should appreciate the work of countless pioneers, who have each dedicated many person-months to make TeX run on (almost) every computer hardware and operating system in the world. We should also not forget all the TeX-gurus, who have written from scratch the hundreds of LaTeX packages, which make life so much easier for us today. Up to the late eighties TUG played an important role in the distribution of TeX , acting as "the" central and official TeX-related distribution point (courses, books, distributions, official information, conferences,...). Since then the Internet, regional TeX User Groups, and the advent of efficient distribution media have taken over many of the tasks which TUG used to provide. Therefore, as I explained above, TUG must concentrate its efforts in a few essential areas, namely serve as the official clearinghouse for TeX-related information (this includes, of course, publishing TUGboat) and act as a liaison with other TeX User Groups.

I am sure that with your continued support TUG will be able to play a significant role in the future. We count on you!

A few words of thanks

I do not want to finish before thanking Karl Berry for his ongoing work in maintaining the web2c sources, which form the basis of (almost) every publicly available port of TeX -- the latest version (7.0) should be out by the time you read this -- as well as for donating his PC to run the TUG WWW server. Another machine installed at UMB, the University where Karl is working, is a Sun Sparc 10 workstation with a 4 Gbytes external hard disk. This machine, which was the former DANTE CTAN node, will soon be the official North American CTAN host (a welcome fact after the demise of SHSU some time ago). Thanks once again to DANTE for this generous donation to the TeX community. And, of course, "un grand merci" to all my colleagues of the TUG Board (present and past) and the TUGboat Production Team, who have been working real hard to keep TUG and TUGboat going.

Last but not least, let us also have a thought for the ongoing work of TeX developers worldwide: the LaTeX3, eTeX, and Omega teams, of course, but also those who continue to adapt and optimize the use of TeX for their national language or for their particular application field. The future of TeX lies to a great extent in their hands, and TUG wholeheartedly endorses all these initiatives, which are the best guarantee that TeX is alive and well.

Revised "President's Words" of TUGboat 17(4)
Revision date 08 April 1997

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