Real type on the web?

A proposal for a fonts working group is under discussion at the W3C. The minutes of a small meeting held on Thursday 23 October include a condensed, corrected transcription of a discussion between Sampo Kaasila (Bitstream), Mike Champion (Microsoft), John Daggett (Mozilla), Håkon Wium Lie (Opera), Liam Quin (W3C), Bert Bos (W3C), Alex Mogilevsky (Microsoft), Josh Soref (Nokia), Vladimir Levantovsky (Monotype), Klaas Bals (Inventive Designers), and Richard Ishida (W3C).

The meeting started with a discussion of Microsoft’s EOT (Embedded OpenType) versus raw fonts. Bert Bos, style activity lead and co-creator of CSS, has beautifully summarized the relevant pros and cons discussed.

For those just catching up with the issue of real type on the web, here’s a bone-simple intro:

  1. CSS provides a mechanism for embedding real fonts on your website, and some browsers support it, but its use probably violates your licensing agreement with the type foundry, and may also cause security problems on an end-user’s computer.
  2. Microsoft’s EOT (based on the same standard CSS mechanism) works harder to avoid violating your licensing agreement, and has long worked in Internet Explorer, but is not supported in other browsers, is not foolproof vis-a-vis type foundry licensing rules, and may also cause PC security problems.

The proposed fonts working group hopes to navigate the technical and business problems of providing real fonts on the web, and in its first meeting came up with a potential compromise proposal before lunch.

Like everyone these days, the W3C is feeling a financial pinch, which means, if a real fonts working group is formed, its size and scope will necessarily be somewhat limited. That could be a good thing, since small groups work more efficiently than large groups. But a financial constraint on the number of invited experts could make for tough going where some details are concerned—and with typography, as with web technology, the details are everything.

I advise every web designer who cares about typography and web standards—that’s all of you, right?—to read the minutes of this remarkable first gathering, and to keep watching the skies.

[tags]web typography, typography, standards, webstandards, W3C, fonts, embedded, @fontface, EOT, workinggroup[/tags]

52 thoughts on “Real type on the web?

  1. Why does it need a working group? Forgive my ignorance, but it’s a case of deciding whether to use one propriety type format, or the standard type format. This is the web – use open technologies or don’t use anything. It’s pretty simple. I’m done with dealing with companies trying to monopolise and monetize the web.

    Make a decision and lobby it. Stop debating. If there’s ever an option, go with Open technologies, full stop. The type industry, like the music and movie industry, will simply have to go deal with a new business model. I’m bored of faffing with DRM and in general accommodating dinosaur distribution models. DRM failed. The type industry will simply walk down the same path and get the same result.

  2. That was one great conversation. I vote to keep the group small should it become official. I won’t hold my breathe though. I think the focus should be on one thing at a time. Format, then legal, then security. Security last because as they mentioned many a times, a barrier will always be climbed. Security can’t be the hot button issue in this discussion. For the sake of longevity I think legality would be most important. For the sake of market saturation and browser adoption format is the key issue.

    Overall I’m glad to see it’s gotten some momentum. I hope to hear more good news on this front in the future. Good news meaning, less debate, more action.

  3. This sounds like a very positive step forward. Too late now for Microsoft to do anything about it, but they really should have made the new Vista fonts more compatible for web usage. It’s a shame, for as designed they can’t be mixed with Verdana, Arial, Lucida, etc because of their relatively smaller size. So they’re pretty much useless outside of the OS.

    Anyhoo – having a true, cross-platform, cross-browser method for embedding postscript / open type / etc would certainly make the web a more visually interesting place. Here’s hoping that becomes a reality in my lifetime.

  4. @Matt Wilcox – The font foundries are worried about people nicking their fonts, so they don’t like the idea of direct-links to OTF/TTF files. Most of the browser-makers don’t like EOT, essentially because it’s patent-encumbered DRM (though the patents could be licensed to the W3C which might ease things somewhat). Another idea was to rely on the “embedding” bit in font-files, but there’s technical issues around that, too.

    If you keep an eye on the W3C mailing lists, there’s a number of proposals flying around now including compression over the wire, access-control and so on, all of which need to be thrashed out by all of the interested parties. Hence a working group.

  5. I have been longing for a way to break out of the verdana/arial/georgia mold for many years, so I am excited at the prospect of a potential solution.

    Jeffrey, have you – or any others you are aware of – envisioned a way to provide this sort of functionality that would be backwards-compatible? It’s a big ask but while I support the idea of progressive enhancement and everything that comes with it, I would dearly love to see a new feature such as this that doesn’t require users to be up-to-date with their browser versions.

    Wishful thinking maybe, but I would love to know your thoughts on this.

  6. If that happens, we can expect the webs to be a lot more beautiful and nigh impossible to read (both more and less useable & accessible) at some point in the future. I’m sincerely looking forward to half regretting it!

  7. I don’t have a problem with turning wonderful (copyrighted) fonts into images and setting the alternate text. It’s not that big of a deal, is it? Are’nt there more important things to be concerned about (such as a rock-solid image replacement implementation)?

  8. I love all the new things that are coming forward, the advances in CSS and the excitement of all that can be done in the future…

    Yet, at the same time, I know that many many people still use Internet Explorer 6 to access the web.

    I can’t get excited about something I won’t really be able to implement into my designs due to the fact that so many of the viewers won’t even see it (or worse, it will mess up their viewing experience altogether).

    Unless I’m way off base. Please let me know. This has been bothering me for a while, about web design – I’ve gotten to a “what’s the point” apathy about it.

  9. Looking forward to what comes of this. I’m in complete agreement with Mr. John Daggett who said “I can’t see us supporting it in the way it’s heading. EOT brings a lot of baggage that’s not good for the Web, we don’t think we should support it.”

    Thanks for the tip.

  10. @Jeffrey

    I did, I’ve been following CSS3 and this very topic pretty closely and my point stands (I’m on the HTML5 WG too, so I’m aware how this sort of thing works – and I’m very tired of it). Too much faffing about! Debate points 6. and 7. are the only real debate points, the rest were statements. Points 11. 12. 13. are all redundant given that 2. 3. and 4. all rule out EOT as a format.

    Thus the only issue that’s holding anything up is actually to do with font foundries monetising fonts. It’s the same old “but won’t this destroy our business! quick – DRM it!” knee-jerk that we’ve seen in the music and video industry. The technical issues are comparitvly minor (there’s only the security one that isn’t directly to do with protecting foundry business models).

  11. @Jeffrey

    And while I sympathise that the realities of doing this are complex – it’s only complex because the people involved are busy trying to negotiate compromises that make money. The actual crux of the matter is a simple “do we use open formats or do we implement some sort of DRM”.

    DRM for type is bad for the same reason it’s bad for HTML5’s tag, and the same reason it’s bad for every other use DRM has ever had.

    For me the W3C should be about pushing things forward, and not about helping corporations make money. They can deal with monetising things on their own.

  12. Matt Willcox: Thanks for clarifying. There’s a lot I don’t know about this potential group and its workings, but I do know that there’s no way they will accept a proposal that includes DRM. There is no DRM on the table and there won’t be, I am assured.

    Most type foundries undoubtedly are more likely to see font embedding as a threat than as something to embrace — in this they are like Hollywood and the music business — but I wouldn’t say they have no right to protect their business model.

  13. @Jeffrey

    That’s good to hear. My fear has been that the only solution foundries will accept will be a font type with some form of DRM wrapper around it. Which, in principal, I’ve not really got a problem with – but I think we all know that any DRM in fact turns out to be convoluted and alienating to users – it simply doesn’t solve the problem of piracy. Never has never will. Which is why in practice I’m against the idea.

    What I also want to avoid is the situation HTML5’s video tag has ended up with – whereby it’s now rendered pointless simply because people won’t agree to use an open source CODEC. Instead we have Mozilla and Microsoft refusing to use Apple’s Quicktime CODECs, and Apple refusing to use Theora OGG. Which means it’s a brilliant tag that’s not interoperable and therefore won’t get used.

    The problem is not the technology, or the intentions of the W3C. It’s with pandering to people that want to monetise our core web technologies. And I have a big fear that @font-face will simply end up in the same position. Which is why I’d like to push very hard indeed for a solution that the foundries are simply told “this is the way it is”. They can find ways to make money without crippling the core technology.

  14. It’s nice to see that there is some work being done to make rich typography a reality on the web.

    However, that particular discussion doesn’t give me much hope that a standardized solution is on the horizon. Too much of that discussion was focused on preserving the current business model for type foundries. If that’s the primary concern, then those businesses should get together and propose their own standard. Who knows, it might open up a new revenue stream for them.

    Otherwise I agree with Matt. The W3C should turn its focus to open technologies, let big business figure out how to monetize it.

  15. I was wondering – how is licensing done in PDFs? It’s a digital format that is consistently rendered across platforms that don’t necessarily have the fonts used within it. Isn’t the web pretty-much the same?

  16. Hooray!

    “Webmasters” will finally be free to inflict the same horrible font choices on their readers that Flash authors have made for years! Finally, the long-awaited utopia where web pages look the way your mom’s MS Word “Family Newsletters” did in 1997 will be upon us!

    Yeah, I know. Hyperbole. This is all certainly a Good Thing.

    But you can’t stop me from tattooing a local style sheet to my forehead, just in case.

  17. Remiel,
    And you know that most web “designers” won’t have the money to buy good fonts. So instead of sticking to Georgia and Arial, they’ll venture out into some poorly kerned knock offs. Not to mention the potential overuse of cursive fonts…

    Oh well, there is usually a price associated with progress.

  18. I was wondering – how is licensing done in PDFs? It’s a digital format that is consistently rendered across platforms that don’t necessarily have the fonts used within it. Isn’t the web pretty-much the same?


    Type outlines are embedded in a PDF; the font cannot be extracted. (Well, it could be extracted, but the amount of work involved neutralizes the risk.)

    By contrast, with @font-face, an actual font is downloaded to your browser’s cache. This is great because it preserves the hinting. You have the font (not just shapes) and can read in that font, just like you do with fonts that come with your operating system. All of this is great for you as a user.

    But it’s not good for type foundries, because it means you’re downloading a font that you haven’t paid for. Admittedly, you have to know a little something to realize that and to locate the font on your hard drive. But you don’t have to know very much to do so.

    An analogy might be the difference between listening to music on Rhapsody and purchasing and downloading an MP3. This is like downloading an MP3 you haven’t purchased. That’s the problem, from the type foundries’ point of view.

  19. Hi Jeffrey,

    thanks for pointing to this.

    These minutes should leave those of us concerned for the open web more than a little worried. That the central premise of this discussion is how to protect the existing business models of large font foundries (while denying new business models to small font foundries and individual designers) is simply breathtaking.

    Some quotes

    “supporting direct linking of the fonts would be a great disservice to the independent font industry. A high-level decision within MS says we won’t implement that in IE. So what is done other than EOT is [probably] not going to interop with IE.” – Mike Champion of Microsoft

    “Steve Zilles said as far as he knows MS and Adobe see eye-to-eye on EOT: A direct font mechanism would be destructive to their font business.” – Mike Champion

    “Really want to see fonts used on the Web in a way that makes suppliers of fonts comfortable”- Sampo Kaasila Bitstream

    At the end of the day, however, the horse has bolted on this. Safari supports TT font linking, FF 3.1 will, Opera 9.X technically can (it was in earlier 9.0 alphas or betas IIRC), while IE supports EOT font linking.

    Are we going to see Apple, and Mozilla pull truetype font linking – well, Mozilla may, but Safari has been shipping this for some time now. I don’t see that happening.

    There’s a lot more to be said on this – here’s a couple of things I’ve had to say from a technical and policy perspective recently


  20. My problem with the whole thing is bandwidth. Given, a lot of people have broadband now and dial-up has become a minority… at least in the non-rural areas of developed nations. But if some designer thinks he needs to use three 125k fonts, it adds 375k to the weight of the page. And that’s not including all the fancy graphics.

    And the funny thing is, if you’re making the user download that 125k font just for a simple label or caption, you could probably do the label or caption as a .gif that’s 1/10th the size of the font file.

    Back in the day, if your page weight (combined file size of all graphics, HTML, scripts, and CSS in your page) was over 50k, it was considered a bandwidth hog. Now, 200-300k page weights seem to be the norm rather than the exception. And this will likely drive average page weights even higher.

    But if you’re not lucky enough to have broadband (perhaps you have a first generation iPhone, or you live in a rural location or a developing nation), this unfettered race toward creating ever-bloated page weights is going to make more of the net next to inaccessible for you.

    The designers who want embedded fonts remind me of the designers who whine that making their designs fit an 800×600 pixel resolution screen is so limiting.

    While the trend was moving higher and it was seeming like designers could declare 1024 pixels the new 800 pixels, resolution regression is on the rise. More and more people are accessing the web on mobile devices or compact netbooks with limited screen real estate. 800-pixel wide screens are making a comeback. So are 640s.

    And the move to wireless broadband, particularly over cell networks, is meaning less bandwidth to go around. We’re stepping back in available screen real estate and bandwidth as more people move to LMD’s (little mobile devices) and the tech and telecom industries work to find ways to put more bits in the air and more pixels in your pocket.

    But until they do… “Tonight we’re building pages like it’s nineteen-ninety-nine.”

  21. Got to agree with Remiel micropayments solve issues around monetisation / compensation for font foundries – with that out the way just move on and extend CSS & caching technologies as required …

    Open-source it and they will come…

  22. OT: in your last two posts I noticed new font styles, specifically new font face definitions for your site (maybe it’s not that off topic – type is the word :-). No more Lucida Grande as the primary font? Taking a peek into the style sheet I see for example

    "Helvetica Neue","Bitstream Vera Sans",Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif

    I deactivated Helvetica Neue on my Tiger, so Arial is next in line and being displayed :-( Better to put System-Helvetica before Arial?

    Jm2c, with best wishes from Berlin!

  23. Remiel:

    Micropayments? By the site or the end-user?

    If the end-user, you mean people should be charged money for viewing a web page that contains embedded fonts. That will never fly. I’m being charged five cents for viewing a web page because some designer used Franklin Gothic for captions? Every website becomes an e-commerce site, charging money for viewing through some seamless credit card grabbing process? Uh-uh. Not going to happen. Too crazy.

    If you meant micropayments by the site, then popularity could bankrupt a website. (The more people who view my page, the more money I automatically pay to a font foundry.) Again, not a viable business model. Nor is it just.

    A one-time payment by the website for a special license a la royalty-free stock photography might be the answer. If I could use Franklin Gothic for body text on this site by paying a reasonable one-time fee to the foundry, I’d weigh the business advantages and do it or not. (Much as I weigh the advantages and disadvantages of using royalty-free stock photography.)

    John Allsopp:

    Thanks for picking out those worrisome quotations, and for your leadership on this issue, and for the articles you wrote and to which you linked. Designers and developers concerned about this issue should read your articles and the comments they accrued.


    Good morning, Berlin!

    You’re right, my headlines are styled as follows:

    "Helvetica Neue","Bitstream Vera Sans",Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif

    Here’s the logic:

    Helvetica Neue is installed on all Mac OS X users. Helvetica Neue comes first because it is a good, reliable Helvetica and every Mac user but you has it installed and turned on.

    If I put “Helvetica” first, as you recommend, some Windows and Linux users on older operating systems might see an ugly cut of Helvetica (yes, there are such things), on a non-subpixel-antialiased operating system, where “Helvetica” actually looks worse than Arial—yes, there are such settings; they have nothing to do with the relative quality of Helvetica versus Arial and everything to do with operating systems.

    I’d be pleasing you (a use case of one) but displeasing millions of Linux and Windows users.

    By putting “Helvetica Neue” first, I avoid forcing Windows and Linux users to see a crappy version of Helvetica instead of the Bitstream Vera Sans or Arial that might look better on their systems. “Helvetica” is on almost everyone’s computer. “Helvetica Neue” is on the computers of designers and Mac users. Its position in the sort order acts as a filter.

    Next comes “Bitstream Vera Sans” for Linux users (where Bitstream Vera Sans looks better in their OS than the version of Helvetica they may own) and for Windows users who’ve installed Bitstream Vera Sans (which looks better on their OS than Arial).

    Then Arial, for the numerically most common set-up.

    Lastly, “Helvetica” and sans-serif as a fallback.

    I’m guessing you turned off Helvetica Neue because you like to run a lean system. That’s cool but do understand that you’re an edge case. (Sorry.)

    Hey, I prefer Franklin Gothic and really wanted to use it as my headline face, but it’s just too uncommon.

  24. I really, really want to be able to embed fonts. Oh this should be so last century but unfortunately it isn’t. As for the type foundries license agreements, I couldn’t care less. They are much like the music industry, in the face of piracy and free alternatives, they resort to lawyers and heavy handed tactics instead of embracing what people truly want: to make the web look awesome. If they don’t get with the program, they will simply go away, no matter how cool their fonts are.

  25. Why should font foundries have their assets taken away from them?
    So if that is true I should be able to copy this site and ship it to 6 other clients and profit from it..

    Yeah, uh, OK sure that works. How about the font industry releasing
    a common font pack? To fund this pack those that use it contribute
    a revenue stream to the improvement of this font pack. Sure some will take advantage upstream but professionals will contribute to build this relationship. They would also be rewarded two fold, always having representation in the process and first access to the state of the art.

    Someone has to pay for this and it is short sighted to believe you can just rip someones work off to propagate your own. Gaining respect in the community means having respect for others work.

  26. Thank you, Jeffrey, for the detailed insight. I understand now. I didn’t take into account that Helvetica (in an inferior version) is also on Windows and Linux systems. In that case, of course, Arial goes first (I have nothing against Arial). Arial for the masses.

    Franklin Gothic would be great. What a shame that it is most common on Windows systems only, according to the survey atCode Style installed 97,55%. Can that really be?

    Have you considered for the Unix crowd “Nimbus Sans L” instead of “Bitstream Vera Sans”? It seems a bit more Helvetica-ish.

    You guessed right, I like to run a lean system. Also, I’m wary of the pre-installed Helvetica Neue because it may interfere with other Helvetica Neue versions (Postscript, TrueType, etc.) regarding print work. As with other fonts there are many different versions from different vendors, but maybe I’m just a bit too careful… but at least it’s nice being on the edge :-)

  27. Greg Bulmash,
    As a user of the first generation iPhone I understand the pain of large – in terms of file size – web pages. Screen width is not an issue, but bandwidth is, unless I’m connected through WiFi.

    However, I don’t think the answer is to keep all pages at ~50kb. For users that are on desktop or laptop machines, they should get the richest experience we can provide in terms of photography, video and interface enhancements via scripts. For users on dialup, or using cell phones, or whatever, we should provide them with either a mobile version of our site (if traffic patterns warrant it) or at least provide a mobile ready gateway to our RSS feeds.

    The beauty of having all these database driven websites is the ability to format our content for different audiences on different software. We should use it rather than handicap ourselves to the lowest common denominator.

  28. Philip:

    You’ve minded me that I was peeved when OS X came with six weights of Helvetica Neue, since I already owned every weight of Helvetica Neue, and the system couldn’t run two sets of the same font. Installing OS X on a Classic machine immediately created this font management problem for me—at a time when early OS X had no font management to offer, and the font management tools I’d used for years weren’t compatible with OS X. For designers, it was a lose-lose.

    I understand now that Apple was widening its appeal beyond its existing market of graphic designers (nearly all of whom, like me, already owned Helvetica Neue) and bringing Helvetica Neue to consumers.

    Off-topic, of course, but your comment brought the experience back to me with a Proustian rush.

  29. I’ve got to say that I’m with Matt W. on this. Perfect digital copies are an unavoidable part of our world. Font foundries are no exception, and like everyone else, they will have to toughen up and adjust their business model.

    Right now, the font foundries are controlling the pace of the development of web fonts, but they’re going too slow. They should be proactive and create a format that meets everyone’s needs. They could band together and release a large pack of free, open-sourced web fonts, which would at the very least satiate most web developers and buy more time. Anything besides dragging their feet would probably work.

    If the font foundries don’t jump in here and identify a middle road that works for everyone, then consumers and developers are going to eventually pick a solution, and it’s going to be a solution that favors consumers and developers and almost definitely will either stomp all over the foundries’ licenses or take the foundries out of the equation completely, devastating their profits.

    Step up, foundries! Musicians can avoid labels and promote online, journalists can avoid newspapers and publish online, and you’ll be next if you don’t step up.

  30. Jeffrey Zeldman:

    I’m just being a clown and not adding to the discussion. Well, actually, I’m making fun of the inevitable “let’s use micropayments” suggestions that will emerge if this issue becomes a mainstream(ish) debate.

  31. Remiel: Thanks for clarifying. And you aren’t just clowning around. The dread word “micropayments” has certainly surfaced in these discussions. But as my response indicates, it ain’t right, and it wouldn’t be practical.

    By contrast, one-time payments (as part of a license when you buy a font), granting you the ability to embed that font in a site, have potential. Sure, some people will cheat (just like some people steal photos). But others will pay, if the fee is reasonable and the terms are clear.

    Nobody thought people would pay to download music until Apple came up with iTunes. Maybe we need Apple to get involved.

  32. I’ve been tracking this issue closely for some time. (See previous links to John Allsop’s Web Direction’s blog.)
    The debate on Web Fonts is a perfect little storm where several hot-button issues intersect, which makes it especially interesting.
    As the transcript from the W3C working group shows, there are significant legal issues involved.
    And it solved for me, at least, the mystery as to why the Opera “dog” hasn’t yet barked by implementing direct linking to TTF files, despite Lie’s advocacy.
    As his little story suggests, he’d rather not end up in the hoosegow, and I can’t say I blame him. Greatly anticipating Opera 10 to see the next chapter.
    I’ve done lot of reading of the applicable case law (court decisions and summaries) and, frankly, it’s difficult to envision a solution that does not strongly take copyright enforcement into account.
    [Note: Allsop keeps pissing me off (yeah, John) by cherry-picking legal precedent and harping on the granddaddy of contributory infringement cases – the US Supreme Court’s Sony decision. But it’s of dubious relevance here, and there has been lots of cases very relevant since then.]
    Despite assurances that the final solution will not involve DRM, there is a serious question as to whether anything can be done to avoid it.
    (And, as always, it depends on how you define a hot-button buzzword like DRM. Is EOT DRM?)
    When it comes to font-linking, the decision may have already been made by court precedent. There may already be an obligation for the browser to implement some form of check for licensed vs unlicensed use. Apple’s decision to ignore the embedding bit very well might not stand a serious challenge.
    It’s a pickle.
    Lastly, Bert Bos has published a nice roundup of the issues – as seen from his perspective:
    Bos’s Summary

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