Standardistas adore the Mozilla Firefox browser for its advanced support of web standards. (How good is it? The Web Standards Project considered declaring victory and closing shop when Netscape Corp. announced in 1999 that it would heed our advice and dump its non-compliant software in favor of the Gecko rendering engine that powers Firefox today.)
Though Firefox and related Mozilla browsers deserve credit for their unsurpassed handling of everything from the Document Object Model to MIME types, Firefox’s way with text leaves much to be desired, as the following screen shots show. Indeed, if reading is mostly what you do on the web, and if accurate typography makes reading more of a pleasure and less of a strain, then Apple’s Safari is superior to Firefox.
Lucida, Test One: with genuine italics
Zeldman.com is designed to be read in Lucida Grande, and the site originally listed “Lucida Grande” first in its style sheet. Alas, Lucida Grande lacks true italics. Fortunately, Lucida Sans has them. In a version of our style sheets used to capture the following screen shots, we’ve listed Lucida Sans first, Lucida Grande second, and substitutes thereafter. Both browers handle the site like a dream—but it is only a good dream in Safari. Open the screen shots in tabs:
Questions for discussion
- In Firefox, why does the text “now in its second edition. I can’t” display midway between roman and bold, and why is it so poorly antialiased? Apparently, Firefox bungles roman text that follows italics.
- In Firefox, why doesn’t hyphenation work? My gosh, people, it’s nearly 2007. IE5/Mac supported hyphenation.
Lucida, Test Two: using a font that lacks italics
Remember: Lucida Grande does not have italics; Lucida Sans does. But as Test One showed, Firefox can’t handle Lucida Sans correctly. So we’ve revised the style sheet. With Lucida Grande listed first in the style sheet, and Lucida Sans deleted, Safari still trounces Firefox. The experience of reading text is smoothly beautiful in Safari, much less so in Firefox.
- Both browsers fake the italics. But Firefox does the job crudely: a child could tell that its “italics” are faked. (Firefox slants the roman text.) By contrast, Safari fakes its italics so well (by substituting a true italic from the next available listed font that contains one) that only graphic designers and type hounds will realize that the font they’re viewing contains no true italics. See reader comments for delicious details.
- In Firefox, hyphenation still does not work.
It’s worth pointing out that these tests were done on Macintosh computers, which are known for their superior handling of text, and that Lucida is not some strange face chosen to prove a point. It is the default font in Mac OS X (not to mention on apple.com). Moreover, Lucida Sans Unicode, the first Unicode encoded font, shipped with Windows NT 3.1 and comes standard with all Microsoft Windows versions since Windows 98.
When I showed a friend and fellow designer these simple tests as I was working on them, he asked if I had reported “the bug” to the makers of Mozilla. But as I count it, there are multiple, overlapping Firefox bugs happening here—too many to fit into a bug-report form. I suspect that the problems have to do with Mozilla’s reliance on its cross-platform display environment. If you scuttle what an individual operating system does well in favor of what a cross-platform environment does poorly, you get what we’re seeing here. It’s not good enough.
Inferences for best practices
If your content will sometimes include italicized text, you naturally want to specify a font that contains italics. That’s just common sense. Unfortunately, as our screen shots have shown, common sense works against you here, because Firefox, although superior to other browsers in many ways, handles text like a drunken fry-cook.
When you specify the font that contains genuine italics (as we did in Test One), Firefox mishandles the roman text that abuts italicized words. When you replace that font with one that contains no italic (Test Two), Firefox fakes the italics crudely, but overall display and legibility are better than the unusable results of Test One.
Obviously there are fewer problems if you limit your website to Verdana and Georgia, but more constraints on typography are not what the web needs.
Discussion is now closed. Thanks to all who shared.
[tags]design, browsers, webstandards, webdesign, mozilla, safari, apple, lucida, unicode, windows, macintosh, osx[/tags]