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W3C gets font support

Adobe, Microsoft, and Agfa support a draft proposal for making fonts easier to use on the Web.

Adobe Systems, Microsoft, and Agfa put their support behind a draft proposal today for making fonts easier to use on the Web.

Released last week, the draft comes from a working group of the World Wide Web Consortium and aims to give designers a broad standard for embedding a variety of font formats in Web pages.

Still subject to evolution, the draft describes rules for browsers to recognize and display fonts on Web pages. It addresses critical issues such as transmission--whether the font travels from server to browser or is installed on users' hard drives.

Another goal is to let designers use nonstandard fonts on the Web as text. Currently, nonstandard fonts must be turned into image files before being embedded in a Web page.

Security--how to prevent fonts being stripped from Web pages--is also a critical issue, but the W3C has a different working group defining such standards. Many typeface designers refuse to license their work to Web sites because, once digitized, they're easy to steal and reuse.

The two major font formats--Microsoft and Adobe's OpenType and Netscape and Bitstream's TrueDoc--have their own security models. Both formats allow type designers to add specific URLs to their font files. Once a URL is embedded, only the Web pages located at that URL can display the font.

The font draft takes a similar nonpartisan approach in other areas, according to its editor, Chris Lilley. Lilley also chairs the W3C's cascading style sheet working group, of which the font group is a subset.

"The draft isn't based on a particular font format," he said. "But it lets you write style sheets that work with different formats. It's very much a meta-description so that the browser can figure out the right font to use."

Netscape, which is working with Bitstream to promote their TrueDoc font system, was an original member of the font working group, but no company representative signed the current draft and Netscape has not announced support for the draft since its release last week. Representatives were not immediately available for comment.

The group still has to resolve the problem of "content negotiation," the system by which the browser tells the server what fonts it supports. If a browser supports OpenType fonts but a page is designed with TrueDoc fonts, for example, the browser needs to figure out a workaround that closely resembles the designer's original intentions. Such a workaround could include a browser-based synthesis engine that renders an approximation of a font on the fly.

Even though the draft has not been before the full W3C membership for a vote, both Microsoft and Netscape have already implemented parts of the specification in the 4.0 versions of their browsers by supporting cascading style sheets, Lilley said. He hopes to submit the draft to W3C members for a vote when the style sheet group meets next month.