There are really three aspects of interest_how well EQN sets mathematics, how well it satisfies its goal of being ``easy to use,'' and how easy it was to build.
The first question is easily addressed. This entire paper has been set by the program. Readers can judge for themselves whether it is good enough for their purposes. One of our users commented that although the output is not as good as the best hand-set material, it is still better than average, and much better than the worst. In any case, who cares? Printed books cannot compete with the birds and flowers of illuminated manuscripts on esthetic grounds, either, but they have some clear economic advantages.
Some of the deficiencies in the output could be cleaned up with more work on our part. For example, we sometimes leave too much space between a roman letter and an italic one. If we were willing to keep track of the fonts involved, we could do this better more of the time.
Some other weaknesses are inherent in our output device. It is hard, for instance, to draw a line of an arbitrary length without getting a perceptible overstrike at one end.
As to ease of use, at the time of writing, the system has been used by two distinct groups. One user population consists of mathematicians, chemists, physicists, and computer scientists. Their typical reaction has been something like:
The learning time is short. A few minutes gives the general flavor, and typing a page or two of a paper generally uncovers most of the misconceptions about how it works.
The second user group is much larger, the secretaries and mathematical typists who were the original target of the system. They tend to be enthusiastic converts. They find the language easy to learn (most are largely self-taught), and have little trouble producing the output they want. They are of course less critical of the esthetics of their output than users trained in mathematics. After a transition period, most find using a computer more interesting than a regular typewriter.
The main difficulty that users have seems to be remembering that a blank is a delimiter; even experienced users use blanks where they shouldn't and omit them when they are needed. A common instance is typing
Since the EQN language knows no mathematics, it cannot deduce that the right parenthesis is not part of the subscript.
The language is somewhat prolix, but this doesn't seem excessive considering how much is being done, and it is certainly more compact than the corresponding TROFF commands. For example, here is the source for the continued fraction expression in Section 1 of this paper:
As to ease of construction, we have already mentioned that there are really only a few person-months invested. Much of this time has gone into two things_fine-tuning (what is the most esthetically pleasing space to use between the numerator and denominator of a fraction?), and changing things found deficient by our users (shouldn't a tilde be a delimiter?).
The program consists of a number of small, essentially unconnected modules for code generation, a simple lexical analyzer, a canned parser which we did not have to write, and some miscellany associated with input files and the macro facility. The program is now about 1600 lines of C , a high-level language reminiscent of BCPL. About 20 percent of these lines are ``print'' statements, generating the output code.
The semantic routines that generate the actual TROFF commands can be changed to accommodate other formatting languages and devices. For example, in less than 24 hours, one of us changed the entire semantic package to drive NROFF, a variant of TROFF, for typesetting mathematics on teletypewriter devices capable of reverse line motions. Since many potential users do not have access to a typesetter, but still have to type mathematics, this provides a way to get a typed version of the final output which is close enough for debugging purposes, and sometimes even for ultimate use.