YOU’RE sick of Helvetica, aren’t you? That show-off changed its birth name, Neue Haas Grotesk, had plastic surgery in the 1980s to get thinner (and fatter), and even has its own movie. Helvetica and its online type brethren Arial, Georgia, Times and Verdana appear on billions of Web pages. You’re sick of these other faces, too, even if you don’t know them by name.
No one questions the on-screen aesthetics of the fonts; Georgia and Verdana were designed specifically for computer use by 2010 MacArthur Foundation grant recipient Matthew Carter, one of the greatest modern type designers. The others have varying pedigrees, and work fine in pixels. They aren’t Brush Script and Marker Felt, for heaven’s sake. But those faces dominate the the web’s fontscape purely because of licensing. Most or all of the faces are pre-installed in Mac OS X, Windows, and several mobile operating systems. Their overuse provides a homogeneity that no graphic designer—or informed reader—would ever tolerate in print. Those not educated in type’s arcana can be forgiven for not caring at a conscious level, even as the lack of differentiation pricks at the back of their optic nerves.
That’s about to change. An entente has formed in a cold war lasting over a decade between type foundries that create and license typefaces for use, and browser makers that want to allow web designers the freedom of selection available for print. The testiness between the two camps arose as a result of piracy and intellectual-property protection concerns. Foundries don’t want their valuable designs easily downloaded and copied, which was possible in one iteration of web font inclusion. For a time, foundries looked to digital rights management (DRM) to encrypt and protect use. Microsoft built such a system in 1998 for Internet Explorer 4. Simon Daniels, the company’s typography supremo, says that even with its browser’s giant market share at the time, it wasn’t very widely used.
Such protection is complicated, and requires an infrastructure and agreements that often prevent use across systems. It also has precious little effect in deterring piracy. DRM may actually push potential buyers into pirates’ arms because out of a desire for simplicity and portability rather than out of an unwillingness to pay. Apple once sold only protected music that would play in its iTunes software and on its iPods, iPhones and iPads. The music industry tried to break Apple’s hegemony over digital downloads by removing DRM, which in turn allows song files to be played on any device. That had some effect, but probably not enough. The industry is now moving towards streaming, where a recurring monthly fee or viewing advertisements unlocks audio from central servers on demand. Fonts may follow a similar path. Foundries have accepted a compromise that removes protection in exchange for a warning label and a kind of on-demand font streaming from central depositories.
This compromise, the WOFF (Web Open Font Format), was thrashed out by an employee of Mozilla, the group behind Firefox, and members of two type houses. It’s a mercifully brief technical document that defines political and financial issues. WOFF allows designers to package fonts using either of the two major desktop formats—themselves remnants of font wars of yore—in a way approved by all major and most minor foundries. It doesn’t protect the typefaces with encryption, but with a girdle of ownership defined in clear text. Future versions of browsers from the three groups will add full WOFF support. Apple’s Safari and its underlying WebKit rendering engine used for nearly all mobile operating systems’ browsers will adopt WOFF, as will Google Chrome and its variants. WOFF was proposed in October 2009, presented to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in April 2010 by Microsoft, the Mozilla Foundation and Opera Software, and adopted as a draft in July, remarkably quickly for such an about face.
The long-term effect of the campaign for real type will be a gradual branding of sites, whether those created by talented individuals or multi-billion-dollar corporations, or based on choices in templates used in blogging and other platforms. Just as a regular reader of the print edition of this newspaper can recognise it in a flash across a room, so, too, will an online edition have the pizazz (or lack thereof) of a print publication. Mr Berry notes,
It’s most obvious in display type and headlines and things, but it’s going to make a huge difference just in reading and text, to have something besides Arial, Verdana, and Georgia. It will make real web publications possible that you want to read, as opposed to a poor substitute.
Expect an equivalent of the Cambrian explosion in typography. And Cambria—another dedicated computer font—won’t be the only new face in town.
Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/10/web_fonts_will_flourish