The other day I said to a colleague that an advantage to LaTeX over Microsoft Word is that it’s easy to version LaTeX files because they’re just plain text. My colleague had the opposite view. He said that LaTeX was impossible to version because its files are just plain text. How could we interpret the same facts so differently?
I was thinking about checking files in and out of a version control system. With a text file, the version control system can tell you exactly how two versions differ. But with something like a Word document, the system will give an unhelpful message like “binary files differ.”
My colleague was thinking about using the change tracking features of Microsoft Word. He’s accustomed to seeing documents in isolation, such as a file attachment in an email. In that setting, a plain text file has no version history, but a Word document may.
I assumed version information would be external to the document. He assumed the version information would be bundled with the document. My view is typical of software developers. His is typical of everyone else.
These two approaches are analogous to functional programming versus object oriented programming. Version control systems have a functional view of files. The versioning functionality is unbundled from the file content, in part because the content (typically source code files) could be used by many different applications. Word provides a sort of object oriented versioning system, bundling versioning functionality with the data.
As with functional versus object oriented programming, there’s no “right” way to solve this problem, only approaches that work better in different contexts. I much prefer using a version control system to track changes to my files, but that approach won’t fly with people who don’t share a common version control system or don’t use version control at all.