Foundations of Programming: Why Markdown? (And why not Word?)

Jan 10, 2011

As soon as I decided to write a follow up to Foundations of Programming, I knew I wanted to use a lightweight markup language. I wanted something accessible to readers and contributors (FoP had 2 translations done). I wanted something that would work well with version control so I could work on it through github. Most importantly, I wanted something that would let me focus on the content so I could write it as quickly as possible.

I chose markdown because I didn't know it. I figured I might as well learn something from the experience. It seemed easy enough and it was. Textmate (the tool I used to write most of it) has good support for writing and previewing. In the end we'll see how flexible it is to convert to a pdf or a epub, but so far I couldn't be happier.

Why didn't I stick with Word? There are two separate reasons, but before I list them off, I need to clarify something. This isn't a Microsoft bash. I really like Word. I think it's one of the best written applications, period. I thought 2007 was great. Calibri is a beautiful font (as is Mac's Menlo). Ribbons are a wonderful usability improvement. I could sit at a computer with Word 2007 in front of me for hours and have a pleasant experience. But...

Probably the most important reasons I've stopped using Word is that I just don't need 99% of the features. A text editor, google docs, a wiki, some lightweight markup (markdown, textile, html) all feel more natural and efficient to me. Maybe this is pompous (me, pompous?!) but I think I've outgrown Word. I don't need custom styles, table borders and shadows, 4 billion fonts, headers and footers or word art. Not all the time anyways, not even very often. I have no doubt that some people do, but I don't, and I'll go out on a limb and say most don't.

Perhaps what's most interesting is how I learnt that I didn't need all those features, which is the 2nd reason I don't use any Office tools. When I got my first macbook, I installed a version of Office. Let's just say it wasn't a pleasant experience. So I just stopped using it, started using google docs or other things, and never really looked back. Now, I'm told the newest version is much better, but it doesn't matter any more. The damage was done and I've moved on.

The moral of the story? I hope FoP2 in markdown works out for everyone. As for Word, my story's warning is: don't give people reasons to look at alternatives.