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If you really need LaTeX, you can use something like org-mode from emacs, or any other system that lets you write in an easy format, then convert it to LaTeX.
macro packages - You can also use troff. This should be easy to get started as it is alrrady present on your machine to format man page: man 2 name is like groff -Tutf8 -man /path/to/name.1 | less. This is for ‘man’ format, but you also have other output: -Thtml, -Tpdf; and other input formats: -mm, -me, -ms … for papers, books, RFCs…
man 2 name
groff -Tutf8 -man /path/to/name.1 | less
preprocessors - And then you can insert tables chemical/math equations and formulas, diagrams and drawings… by using preprocessors, that transform a sub-language dedicated to each kind, to the general troff language.
utroff - a well-documented set of macro package for a powerfull implementation of troff: heirloom doctools.
Before the web got so popular and still nowadays, HTML + CSS is more a typesetting system than anything else. We pay millions to hire developpers to can make a webapp fit into a typesetting system. We can totally use this typesetting system for typesetting.
All you need is a web browser, and a text editor. Hit CTRL + P and you have a high quality document made by one of the largest software project made by one of the largest IT company, all of that with a debugger that let you click on an arbitrary node of your document to see corresponding source, that you can edit to get immediate result. I do not think any other typesetting system made something as crazy as this.
Bonus: you do not need to learn it: you already know it.
I’ve been wanting to switch to HTML+CSS for papers for a long time, but imo the quality of the print output from browsers is still worse then latex, and browser support for the print-oriented portion of CSS is poor.
It is possible to get great print output from HTML+CSS with PrinceXML, but I’m wary of becoming dependent on a very expensive proprietary software product.
Better not be dependent on a proprietary expensive software, as you said!
We’ve covered a few here recently that are promising (SILE being the one I’m most excited about and most interested in), and there are ways of using TeX without getting knee-deep in TeX itself (e.g. via Pandoc), but there aren’t really any systems right now that have TeX’s breadth and depth.
That said, if your concern is with LaTeX, as opposed to TeX, and you don’t need to work with LaTeX, I personally find ConTeXt on LuaTeX a much saner environment. Similar power to LaTeX, and obviously the same ultimate underpinning, but a shallower learning curve.
XeLaTex has support for OpenType fonts installed on the system. LuaTeX has to do this via a package. Both have Unicode support.
LuaTeX I just like because you can script in Lua instead of TeX. If you’re just using the verbatim ConTeXt or LaTeX templates, it should work similarly to any other TeX system. (Though, as ane points out below, XeTeX has better out-of-the-box OpenType support.)
What is your exact problem? Pandoc/Markdown/Sphinx, LyX and LaTeX-kept-simple all solve (and don’t solve) different parts of this.
I use LaTeX every day and it is fantastic but I worry that if I didn’t have people at my job supporting the LaTeX build environment I would never be able to use it because of the confusing toolchain required. As it stands I make my edits to .tex files in vim and run make to get a PDF.
This article confirms my fears that LaTeX requires tribal knowledge to get started with.