To gain this level of control over document creation, we will have to turn to a kind of markup language that has been around in various forms since the 1970s. Originally beginning life as TeX, the language further evolved to become LaTeX, which is a premier system for crafting your documents, technical papers, and more just like big-house publishers do. The syntax and format for LaTeX is rather easy to learn and understand.
Now, taking this idea to the next level, a group of LaTeX professionals from the United Kingdom have created a compelling online service called writeLaTeX, which combines the power of LaTeX with Google Docs-like online editing and sharing features. You can either create an account to help organize all of your documents, or simply jump right into the editor to try it for yourself.
When I opened writeLaTeX for the first time, I took a gander at the sample LaTeX file presented with the raw code on the left-hand side and a rendered WYSIWYG output on the right-hand side. Everything from the titles and bullet-points to the annotations and inline comments looked just like it came out of a professional reference guide you could purchase from a book store. The interface also scales easily between compact and large display sizes without issue, thanks to the rather minimalistic user interface.
As a test, I wrote some sample LaTeX code in the editor to see how performance for rendering the text would be for a cloud service. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say that writeLaTeX works in real time, you can expect to see what your output would look like within 5 to 7 seconds of entering in a valid line of LaTeX markup. Depending on your Internet connection or your browser, this time can vary. Once I finished my sample piece, I was able to quickly output to PDF format with the click of a mouse, ready to print or share with others. Alternatively, the raw TEX and any supplemental graphic files can be downloaded as well as a single ZIP file.
Speaking of sharing, just like Google Docs, you can have several live collaborators working on your LaTeX markup all at the same time. Simply share your "Read & Edit" link with your desired co-authors so they can join in and get to work. Sometimes you might even need to save snapshots of your document as you move along using the History menu. This way, if you encounter a set of errors in the document or decide you need to rollback to an earlier revision, it's simply a matter of finding an older item in history and clicking to restore that version.
Although rendering the output visual text might be a bit on the slow side, as compared to using a Windows-based LaTeX editor, the features that writeLaTeX brings to the table more than makes up for this. If you are looking to start out and give it a test drive, a free version which offers basic revisions support and 1GB of cloud storage is available.
If you are looking to incorporate writeLaTeX into your business, a Workgroup Pro package, which includes 10GB of cloud storage, document password protection, and template edits, is available for $24.58 per month for smaller teams. Enterprise users with a large number of users can even pursue a custom private installations with full administrative access, all included with the enterprise package.
An avid technology writer and an IT guru, Matthew is here to help bring the best in software, hardware and the web to the collective consciousness of TechRepublic's readership. In addition to writing for TechRepublic, Matthew currently works as a Customer Success Professional for Ultimate Software in Santa Ana, California.