Vista, Office, fonts, portability, and a different form of lock-in?

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I love fonts. In the 1990s I went out to Redmond for an open Microsoft meeting to talk about font technology. It was technical, geeky, and I got a cool T-shirt (one of several that Microsoft has given me during the years). Part of the reason I cared was that when I was building techexplorer I had to know fonts, particularly math fonts, inside and out. There is also an elegance to a well designed font: it can be aesthetically pleasing and make the reading experience that much better. That is, fonts are part art and part technology.
Through the years there have been a number of ways of representing fonts such as the TeX format, Adobe PostScript, and Apple/Microsoft’s TrueType. There are lots of places on the web that discuss the differences. Here is one.

There are many numbers, or metrics, associated with fonts. For a given character, how wide is it, how tall is it, how much does it drop below the baseline, are just the basic metrics. You also care about kerning, such as how close you can move an “A” and a “V” so that they look good but are not too squashed. In any case, when you format a document, the differences between fonts and how you process them can change how lines and pages are broken and how things line up. Therefore it is important to both use the same font and follow the same formatting model if you want one document processed by two different applications to look the same.

If you and I are both using the same platform such a Mac, a Linux Desktop, or Windows, it is much easier to use the same font and to use underlying operating system support for the metrics and the layout. There are still ways that we might make our documents differ in appearance, but it is easier on one platform.

When we use different operating systems, things get trickier because the underlying code to handle the fonts may be different. This can cause layout differences. Also, the same font might not be available on every platform. For example, in the CSS for this blog (if you are reading it on my website) I specify

font: normal small/1.5em “Trebuchet MS”,Verdana,Arial,Sans-serif;

This means that Trebuchet MS should be used if it is available. If not, then Verdana. If not, then Arial. If not then just choose some San-serif font. (Serifs are the little extra flourishes or lines you see at the ends of lines and curves in displayed characters. For example, they would be the two little lines at the bottom of the “legs” you would see in the letter “A” when displayed in Times Roman. It is easier to read online text when it doesn’t have serifs.)

So if I am using Microsoft Windows and have Trebuchet MS (the MS = Microsoft) and you have a Linux Desktop and look at my website and don’t have that font, the site will look different to each of us.

Fonts are often licensed, though there are many free fonts available. For a licensed font you are not necessarily allowed to give a copy to someone else nor are you allowed to just put it on another operating system. This has been the state of the world for a long time. This can cause a problem with sharing PDF across platforms, for example.

Microsoft Vista and the new version of Office contain many new default fonts. To see what they look like, check out “A Comprehensive Look at the New Microsoft Fonts.”

Given my very first sentence in this entry, I’m torn about this. If the fonts make the visual experience more compelling and attractive, great. But …

… if these cause document rendering problems on other platforms because the fonts will not be available on them, then I would say skip them. That is, will we need governments and others to adopt policies that say something like “you will not use fonts for display and printing that are not available on all desktop platforms”?

We’ve talked about about document format lock-in (to avoid, use ODF), we’ve just starting talking about DRM and document lock-in, so we now need to raise the potential problem of document and font lock-in?

Three final notes:

  • First, I am aware that the current crop of Microsoft fonts are not typically installed on Linux desktops but I’m also aware that people usually find a way to get them there.
  • Second, is this moot? Will Microsoft freely license these fonts for use on other platforms? If so, we can avoid this potential tempest before the wind really starts to blow.
  • Finally, at some point I would expect to see fonts locked down with DRM. Will this be a problem for you?

Update: I tried to install the Microsoft Consolas font from the Microsoft web site but it stopped and said I needed to install Microsoft Visual Studio first.

Update 2: Microsoft makes the same points about fonts, art and technology at their very nice font web page (also see their typography page.)


  1. Well, it was about time for someone to open a debate about font compatibility. Of course, for (MS) Office documents saved and opened under Windows, Times New Roman and Arial are the de facto standard. And there still are plenty of problems with them and they are not exactly the most beautiful fonts around.

    My two fonts of choice for printed documents are Myriad Pro and Minion Pro from Adobe. Beautiful, elegant fonts, in the modern OTF format. When i switched to Linux (Kubuntu) a year ago I discovered, much to my dismay, that even if Linux does have support for OTF fonts, OpenOffice for Linux does not. In order to be able to use them in OOo under Linux, I had to convert them to TTF (thank you FontForge).

    Well, the Windows version does not support them either, but it could use them nonetheless (I think OOo relies on Windows to show them). I only had problems when exporting the file to PDF by means of the integrated OpenOffice support: the font changed without warning to Arial or TNR.

    To cut the story short, with all the standardization efforts today and with all the institutions and companies making the switch to Linux, I think that the pundits (Oasis?) should get together and draft a policy/best practices/recommendations for font compatibility in Office documents/applications. I understand that it is hard and even undesirable to make everybody use the same fonts, and that it is harder still to overcome the differences between operating systems or between applications, but at least when it comes to shared documents (intended to be edited, unlike PDF) a common practice would be nice.

    And by the way: shouldn’t there be an option to embed fonts in ODF documents? I am not 100% sure, but I think there is no such option right now.

    Mr. Sutor, keep up the good work. Your blog is an inspiration. All the best from Romania.

  2. I love fonts, too. You may find this digression interesting about Eric Gill — father of Gill Sans and other beautiful works…

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