Open source casts new mold for type design

DejaVu font development gives Linux another toehold for its push into proprietary territory. Image: The DejaVu font

The open-source approach, born in the field of programming, is catching on in a new area: type design.

In 2003, type design company Bitstream, in conjunction with the GNOME Foundation, released a font family called Vera for open-source use. Under the license terms, anyone was permitted to make new fonts based on Vera, as long as the derivatives were given a different name.

Now, with Vera essentially dormant, an international group has picked up work on an offshoot called DejaVu. There are other Vera derivatives, such as Erav. But DejaVu has caught on widely enough for it to be the default font for Dapper Drake, the latest update to Ubuntu Linux. It may also become the default font for Red Hat's Fedora version of Linux.

"DejaVu, from purely a user perspective, seems to be the one that has the momentum and benefits behind it," said Rahul Sundaram, one of nine board members for the Fedora Project, which governs the Linux version.

Fonts--letters and other characters that range in appearance from utilitarian to highly ornamental--are usually proprietary designs from companies called foundries. That proprietary nature doesn't jibe with open-source principles--a mismatch made glaring by the widespread use of Microsoft fonts on Linux.

But having practical and pleasing fonts for Linux is important, particularly as programmers work to improve GNOME and other graphical software to make the open-source operating system a better alternative to Windows.

DejaVu The "scratch-your-own-itch" motive that drives much development of open-source software lay behind the DejaVu project. Specifically, the itch was that Vera didn't have needed support for international characters. The DejaVu font is updated monthly with new and improved characters for displaying Chinese, Cyrillic, Vietnamese, Braille, Greek, Arabic, Uzbekian and other languages. Many characters added to DejaVu have come from other Vera offshoots.

"I think it's a simple demonstration of the power of open source," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said. Typeface design may not be the same as programming, but when it comes to the collaborative approach, "the principles are the same," he added.

The open-source philosophy has at its heart ideas such as collaboration, and the freedom to modify and redistribute an original project. It's extending beyond software, though. Some have applied the idea to politics, where independent individuals create their own advertisements instead of waiting for established campaigns to do so. And Sun Microsystems has applied it to hardware: Its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor design is governed by the granddaddy of free and open-source licenses, the General Public License (GPL).

Put a fork in it
Credit for launching DejaVu goes to Štepán Roh, said Nicolas Mailhot, who oversees DejaVu integration into the Fedora Extras package of add-on software. Roh helped consolidate a fragmented font design effort into what became DejaVu, Mailhot said.

Vera generated initial excitement, especially over its glyphs, or typographical characters. "The glyph quality was vastly superior to those of other FLOSS (free/libre/open-source software) font offerings at the time," Mailhot said. "Also, Bitstream released a full font set, including sans-serif, serif and monospace styles."

Roh said he started the project in March 2004. "The only TrueType fonts I had were Bitstream Vera. But they were lacking certain glyphs needed for the Czech language, so I decided to add them by myself," he said.

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