Microsoft sponsors new Web font standard

The software colossus signs up to sponsor standardization of the Web Open Font Format technology. Support in IE9 looks likely.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

With a surprise boost from Microsoft, the promise of rich typography on the Web just got a big step closer to reality.

The software company's involvement emerged Monday with sponsorship of a newer effort at the World Wide Web Consortium to standardize Web-based fonts with technology called the Web Open Font Format (WOFF). It's a fresh indicator of Microsoft's serious engagement with new Web standards--and it's a big boost for designers' attempts to stretch the Web beyond just the few typefaces that today can be expected to be already installed on people's computers.

It's not unusual to see Mozilla and Opera Software as WOFF backers--the two browser makers have been trying to advance the Web state of the art for years. But after years of going its own way, Microsoft has shown new interest in Web standards and now is a powerful ally that's sponsoring the submission of WOFF to be a W3C standard.

"Given the increasing interest in WOFF from browser implementors, tool creators, and type foundries [it] is expected that WOFF will soon serve as that single, interoperable format and that other implementors will add support over time," the W3C's WebFonts Working Group said of the move.

The move was notable enough that Tiro Typeworks' John Hudson used bold italic to spotlight Microsoft's WOFF involvement. Type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones opted for ALL CAPS.

Microsoft's IE9, though available only in a half-baked preview edition so far, has sent ripples throughout the browser world as a product that restores Microsoft. It's not yet clear whether IE9 will support WOFF, and Microsoft didn't comment on its plans, but the signs are good it will.

For comparison, Microsoft joined a Web graphics standard effort called Scalable Vector Graphics in January, and a few weeks later, the IE9 prototype emerged with strong support for SVG. And note that hardware-accelerated, high-quality fonts are one of the front-and-center features of IE9.

The W3C chartered a new Web fonts group in March to standardize WOFF. The WOFF standard submission "allows that technical work to commence," the Web font group said.

WOFF is one of a handful of technologies designed to improve typography on the Web. Most Web pages are constructed with a small set of relatively common fonts, but some designers want to add more customization or style by using specific typefaces. Today, that's often done by adding graphics, but that approach is best for limited areas such as logos, and it breaks useful computing features such as the ability to copy and paste text.

Newer browsers let designers invoke many Web fonts these days using the "@font-face" instruction on Web pages, but Web font technologies are inconsistently supported by browsers. Among the other technologies available are Embedded OpenType (EOT) for embedding TrueType and OpenType from Microsoft and SVG Fonts, which thus far are the only Web fonts supported by the iPhone and iPad.

The Diavlo typeface demonstrated as a Web font at Ralf Herrmann's Typography Weblog.
The Diavlo typeface demonstrated as a Web font at Ralf Herrmann's Typography Weblog. Ralf Herrmann's Typography Weblog

WOFF attempts to address some of the problems of these other font embedding approaches. One is download size, an important consideration for Web developers who want fast-loading pages. WOFF reduces size through compression and by letting Web developers offer only the necessary subset of characters for a Web page rather than the entire font.

Another concern is intellectual property. Font shops, whose designs aren't copy-protected, are leery of making the fruits of their labor available for free download. WOFF accommodates metadata that can include type designer and licensing information, and the downloaded fonts aren't the sort of thing that can be installed on a person's computer. "Web FontFonts come in formats that work only on websites (not in any desktop app), and do so without crippleware or user interruptions," said font foundry FontFont, which began licensing its fonts in WOFF format in February.

There are signs of success. The creators of WOFF--Tal Leming of Type Supply, Erik van Blokland of LetError, and Jonathan Kew of Mozilla--apparently have rounded up significant support from various font foundries, including Adobe Systems, House Industries, ITC Fonts, Linotype, and Monotype.

Mozilla introduced WOFF support with Firefox 3.6. Other major browsers--Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera, and Chrome--support @font-face already, paving the way for WOFF support should they choose to add it.

It's not imminent, though. So far, Chrome developers haven't begun tackling WOFF support in earnest, with the feature tracker just listing WOFF support as "untriaged." Chrome and Apple's Safari are based on the open-source WebKit project. But WebKit's WOFF support also is up in the air, with nobody yet taking on responsibility for the matter, according to the WebKit bug-tracker.

But things are moving fast in the browser world these days. WOFF is by no means a guaranteed success, but Microsoft and Mozilla together account for the vast majority of browser usage on the Net today. Their support alone is enough to give WOFF the necessary boost to relevance, once people upgrade their browsers and Web developers learn the new technology.