Typographic pizzazz: Coming to a Web near you

After years of Web-font false starts, the new font technology is poised to spruce up the Web's words. Overall, it'll be a step forward.

Your favorite font could soon be coming to the Web.

That's because of a new technology called Web Open Font Format, or WOFF, that has attracted support from all the right players: browser makers, standards groups, typography designers, and online services to ease licensing. The technology, just now ready enough to use, is making something of a debut this week at the TypeCon conference in Los Angeles.

WOFF can let designers impart an old style to text with an appropriate font.
WOFF can let designers impart an old style to text with an appropriate font. In this Mozilla demonstration, it's used to reproduce an excerpt from law from 1700 in a book of laws from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Daggett

WOFF grew out of cooperation among Erik van Blokland from type foundry LettError, Tal Leming from type foundry Type Supply, and Jonathan Kew of Mozilla. It's steadily accumulated allies, and some final pieces have now fallen into place:

• Browser support. Apple has added support in prototype builds of WebKit, the browser engine used by Safari. The four other major browsers already had signed up for WOFF.

• Adobe support. The design powerhouse said Monday it will offer several Adobe fonts for Web use through a font subscription service called TypeKit.

• Standardization. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published the first draft of WOFF on July 27, clearing the way for its use in browsers and elsewhere.

Individually, these moves would be minor. But together, they promise to help open the Web to typography, catching the new medium up with books, newspapers, magazines, TV, and the rest of the world where words can embody more than just raw textual information.

How did we get here?
Most folks are familiar with picking fonts in word processors and other applications. Yet only now, after several false starts, is the possibility being built into the Web.

Web designers today have significant limitations when it comes to fonts. The biggest one is the limited "Web-safe" list of fonts that can be expected on most computers. Among them are Arial, Verdana, Georgia, Times New Roman, Trebuchet.

WOFF permits use of different typefaces for much closer control over typography.
WOFF permits use of different typefaces for much closer control over typography. This screenshot is from a Microsoft demonstration. Microsoft

None of them is bad, really, but none of them will stand out. If you want something more distinctive, your main options are using Adobe Systems' Flash technology and text converted into a graphical element. Flash, while widely supported on PCs is one step removed from Web standards; graphics can be slow to load, can't be copied or searched as text, and don't scale gracefully to different zoom levels.

Given that fonts have been easily copied digital files for longer than the Web has existed, it's a little surprising that typography isn't part of the Web already. To be sure, HTML permits tags that invoke boldface and italic, but that's very far removed from what, for example, a magazine layout designer might expect.

WOFF isn't the first attempt to crack the Web-font nut. Among more recent efforts that got some traction are Embedded OpenType, which grew from Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and SVG Fonts, which use the Scalable Vector Graphics standard and are the way to bring typography to the iPad. Those didn't achieve broad support, though.

Building on CSS
Another big step on the path to WOFF was the "@font-face" element of the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) Web page formatting standard. This specified a way to download fonts for use in Web pages.

WOFF builds on the @font-face technology, adding compression that can speed up font download times and a metadata section that can describe the typeface seller, copyright information, and other matters to help allay copying concerns from type designers. WOFF packages up a category of fonts called Sfnt ("spline font") that includes fonts encoded with OpenType, TrueType, and Open Font Format technology.

WOFF was designed with involvement from several groups.
WOFF was designed with involvement from several groups. Erik van Blokland and Tal Leming

Solving the technology matters is one thing. Solving the business ones was another. But WOFF allies managed to attract the support of several type foundries. Among them are Adobe Systems, House Industries, ITC Fonts, Linotype, and Monotype.

Payment, of course, is another matter. Here online services come into play. Web site operators can pay usage-based subscription fees that enable use of a growing range of commercial typefaces.

Adobe opted to join the Typekit project for enabling delivery of its Web fonts--staples such as Myriad and Minion joined by Chapparal, Calflisch Script, and Poplar. Another player that offers a licensing scheme is Extensis' WebInk site, which has drawn participation from several type design firms.

On the browser front, Mozilla was first, but Opera and, notably, Microsoft signed on as well. Next came Google's Chrome. Apple didn't comment for this story, but the fact that the nightly build of Safari's WebKit supports WOFF speaks volumes. WOFF support on iOS devices, however, which use a mobile version of Safari, remain an unknown factor.

"Over time, SVG implementations are expected to move to WOFF because of the better internationalization of OpenType," said Chris Lilley, fonts activity lead with the W3C. But SVG fonts are still widely used--not just on iOS devices, but also BlackBerry and iTunes, he said.

Even with the standards settling down and all the browser makers on board, though, it'll be awhile before WOFF catches on. Web developers will have to learn the technology, and people will have to upgrade their browsers.

Do we really want flashy fonts on the Web?
At this point, some Web traditionalists might start getting worried. Is typography on the Web an unalloyed benefit?

Certainly there will be visual abuse--the textual equivalent of the blinking online advertisements that so annoy some people. The movements against Comic Sans and Helvetica will have new birthday invitations and resumes to disparage. Some previously comprehensible, unassuming Web sites will doubtless become harder to read. And I for one do not look forward to any additional use of Adobe Rosewood.

Erik van Blokland and Tal Leming

Overall, though, I suspect the good will outweigh the bad. People spend a lot of time reading, and designers spend a lot of time trying to make the most of that.

Sometimes it involves choosing the most practical typeface for a job--say, readability of long tracts of text or legibility of headlines. Sometimes it involves bringing style to words. Type is a major part of the brand of many companies, not just magazines that have a distinctive look, but also corporations that create advertisements and Web pages.

And fundamentally the Web need not be so flavorless. Picking the right fonts can bring some polish, professionalism, or pizzazz that generic Web-safe fonts lost long ago.

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