Ubuntu for the Technical Author?

We run a mixture of PCs (XP, Vista and Win 7) and Macs and, earlier this week, we spent some time investigating whether the Ubuntu Operating System might be worth installing on some of our older Windows XP machines.

Ubuntu is a free and user-friendly version of Linux that looks and operates in a similar way to Apple’s OS/X. It’s fast, small in size and “just works”. There’s no need to do things in Terminal or learn obscure Unix commands in order to get it to work.

Ubuntu has a reputation for turning tired old computers into sprightly young beasts, and it is certainly fast. A machine running Windows XP took 10 minutes from power up to the point where you could send an email. Launching Ubuntu on the same machine (so it can dual boot) reduced that time to less than two minutes. You could argue it’s better than Windows 7.

As a platform for Technical Authors, unfortunately, there are some frustrations. The word processors (Libre Office, for example) don’t seem to be as robust as Microsoft Word. If you import a Word document, bullets and formatting can often be a mess. Your favourite Help Authoring Tools are only available in Windows (there are a few for the Mac), so there are limitations there as well.

If you’re authoring in a browser environment, then you shouldn’t face any difficulties. If you install a Windows emulator or set the machine up so it can launch into both Windows and Ubuntu, you can use Windows for some specialist tasks and Ubuntu for others (web browsing, emailing, messaging etc). As a platform for mainstream computer users, it’s great. Unfortunately, for the specialist, there are times when you may still need to use Windows instead.


Matthew Helmke

I use Ubuntu exclusively for freelance work, but a Mac at my day job. Ubuntu works great if you do simple things in your text editor, LibreOffice, or create your own stylesheets. If you write in other formats, say DocBook, it is amazing.

Disclosure: I am the author of two books on Ubuntu (both of which were written exclusively using Ubuntu).

Jen Phillips

You mention incompatibilities between Word and Libre Office. Having been an Open Office.org user for years I’ve met a few myself. They don’t seem to be any worse than problems with different versions of Word – I lost a very frustrating hour to those this morning.

Tobias Anstett

Have you also thought about a platform independant approach to documentation? Wiki-based documentation can be done locally, in the intranet, extranet or even in the cloud – no need to worry about OS or device and location. If you are interested in this topic let me know – looking forward to discuss this issue. We are promoting wiki-based concepts at #tekom #tcworld …

John Tait

The Oxygen XML editor (DITA) works across Ubuntu and Windows, and it now outputs ePub.

To be honest though you can have all the power of DITA and none of the stress by using Orgmode. It happily churns out PDFs and web pages, with transcluded files and conditional processing.

LyX is great as well.

Jay Maechtlen (@jmaechtlen)

I use Ubuntu VMs (in Virtualbox) for specialized tasks like learning LaTex ot testing stuff. Since most of my clients want their docs in MS Word, I use Word.
I like OpenOffice well enough, but there are issues in converting complex docs – and I don’t get paid to wrestle stupid format conversion issues.
– never mind trivialities like bullets – I’m talking multiple section breaks messing up headers/footers, funky caption issues, and more.


If you are locked in Adobe land then Ubuntu is a non-starter for tech docs. But if you can harness the power of DITA or Docbook then setting up the tool chains for XML publishing is much easier in my experience on Linux.

oXygenXML is cross-platform and for my money the best XML editor around.

I do not agree that OpenOffice (or rather LibreOffice) is inferior to MS Word. It just does things differently. It does many useful things from a tech writers point of view:
It organizes styles better than word (para, inline, lists etc.). It allows you to create books a la Framemaker. Much better conditional text handling than Word (not hard). It’s also lot more stable when dealing with docs over 50 pages (which MS certainly is not). And it has built in PDF conversion without the need to install an Adobe plugin!

As for formatting problems when converting from Word. Have you seen the dog’s dinner that word regularly makes when opening non-MS formats?

Also there are good graphics tools in the form of GIMP, Inkscape and Shutter – this last is the best screenshot tool I’ve come across on any platform.

If your work lies mainly in XML documentation then Ubuntu is as good if not better than Windows or Mac IMHO.

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