20

As per my knowledge/understanding both help and man came at the same time or have very little time difference between them. Then GNU Info came in and from what I have seen is much more verbose, much more detailed and arguably much better than what man is. Many entries even today in man are cryptic.

I have often wondered why Info which is superior to man in many ways didn't succeed man at all. I still see people producing man pages than info pages. Was it due to not helpful tools for info? Something in the licenses of the two? Or some other factor which didn't get info the success it richly deserved?

I did see a few questions on unix stackexchange notably What is GNU Info for? and Difference between help, info and man command among others.

  • Nominated to reopen. Yes, there is some subjectivity in there, but there are certainly reasonable things to say why info did not take off as a default Unix documentation format. Though I'm no expert on the topic. – Faheem Mitha Oct 7 '14 at 17:52
  • For what it's worth, man existed since the dawn of time -- i.e., the mid 1970s. AFAIK help is quite a bit more recent that that. – Scott Oct 7 '14 at 18:19
  • 2
    While there are objective things to say about man vs info, to get to the question's "why," you have to apply opinion. Is verbosity actually better? Is it better to have a bunch of hyperlinked documentation sections or one big document? Etc. The OP obviously believes info is better, but I like man better. That's enough to prove we're in the land of opinion. – Warren Young Oct 7 '14 at 18:26
  • 2
    Your other query is 100% off topic since it can only be pure opinion and speculation. IMO your initial query is also off topic for the same reasons. I also dislike info since I never remember all the tricks of moving around in it. If you're going to have something that complex, why not use HTML and a browser? But that too is an opinion, I don't see how you can get a definite answer to this. – terdon Oct 8 '14 at 11:47
  • 6
    @terdon Hello, this is 1986, the GNU project has published Info as an improvement on manual pages — you can print an Info manual, or browse it on the computer and follow links to different sections, which is pretty neat. What is this “HTML and a browser” that you speak of? – Gilles Oct 8 '14 at 20:57
19

To answer your question with at least a hint of factual background I propose to start by looking at the timeline of creation of man, info and other documentation systems.

The first man page was written in 1971 using troff (nroff was not around yet) in a time when working on a CRT based terminal was not common and printing of manual pages the norm. The man pages use a simple linear structure. The man pages normally give a quick overview of a command, including its commandline option/switches.

The info command actually processes the output from Texinfo typesetting syntax. This had its initial release in February 1986, a time when working on a text based CRT was the norm for Unix users, but graphical workstations still exclusive. The .info output from Texinfo provides basic navigation of text documents. And from the outset has a different goal of providing complete documentation (for the GNU Project). Things like the use of the command and the commandline switches are only a small part of what an Texinfo file for a program contains.

Although there is overlap the (Tex)info system was designed to complement the man pages, and not to replace them.

HTML and web browsers came into existence in the early 90s and relatively quickly replaced text based information systems based on WAIS and gopher. Web browsers utilised the by then available graphical systems, which allows for more information (like underlined text for a hyperlink) then text-only systems allow. As the functionality info provides can be emulated in HTML and a web browser (possible after conversion), the browser based system allow for greater ease of navigation (or at least less experience/learning).

HTML was expanded and could do more things than Texinfo can. So for new projects (other than GNU software) a whole range of documentation systems has evolved (and is still evolving), most of them generating HTML pages. A recent trend for these is to make their input (i.e. what the human documenter has to provide) human readable, whereas Texinfo (and troff) is more geared to efficient processing by the programs that transform them.¹

info was not intended to be a replacement for the man pages, but they might have replaced them if the GNU software had included a info2man like program to generate the man pages from a (subset of a larger) Texinfo file.

Combine that with the fact that fully utilising the facilities that a system like Texinfo, (La(TeX, troff, HTML (+CSS) and reStructured Text provide takes time to learn, and that some of those are arguably more easy to learn and/or are more powerful, there is little chance of market dominance of (Tex)info.

¹ E.g reStructured Text, which can also be used to write man pages

  • As of now your answer is the best so far but am going to wait for a few more days before awarding you. One query though, shouldn't it have been man2info rather than info2man. I have also felt that the language was bit more informal/easy than man is/was. Greedy for more answers to the same. Thank you for your wisdom :) – shirish Oct 9 '14 at 16:07
  • @shirish It is easy to be the best so far as long as it is the only answer ;-) . I meant info2man, it is also mentioned on the Texinfo wiki page. With an official GNU supported way to extract man pages from info, they could have created a two-in-one solution, and maybe had more chance to replace man – Anthon Oct 9 '14 at 16:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.