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Spec looks out for Web fonts

Adobe and Microsoft advance a specification for a new computer typeface technology to improve the appearance and security of fonts online.

Adobe Systems (ADBE) and Microsoft (MSFT) have just released a specification for a new computer typeface technology that promises to make fonts on the Web easier to use, nicer to look at, and harder to steal.

Now posted on both the Adobe and Microsoft Web sites, the OpenType specification merges two standard font technologies that traditionally have separated the publishing world and business end-user world.

"The initiative is to unite TrueType and Type 1, as each has different strengths," said Dan Mills, director of type development at Adobe. Developed by Apple Computer and licensed by Microsoft, TrueType is supported in the operating system itself, while Adobe's Type 1, which is much more popular with printers and publishers, is supported by operating system extensions, according to Mills.

Up to now, fonts on Web pages and other digital documents have been limited to a basic set because of bandwidth and security concerns.

"There has been little technology in the past to stop people from taking typefaces and embedding them in their documents," said Stephan Somogyi, principal of technology consultancy Gyroscope.

The new OpenType specification lets type designers embed an information tag in the font file header with authorship information and instructions on how a font may or may not be used. The companies are looking at incorporating digital signatures into the tags so that the authorship of a font can be verified. If a font is altered or used improperly--copied illegally and posted on the Internet, for example--the digital signature would be rendered invalid. While not infallible, it's a level of protection that up to now type designers have sorely lacked.

"It will make it easier to go after people illegally distributing copies of fonts," said John Hudson, type director at Tiro Typeworks in Vancouver, British Columbia. "But that's only one of numerous forms of font piracy."

At the moment, there is no copyright protection for typeface design in the United States. A computer font is protected only because the source code of the file is recognized as intellectual property, according to Adobe's Mills. But if a screen font is printed and rescanned into a font-creation program like Macromedia's Fontographer, the font loses all copyright protection, Mills added.

Another part of the OpenType specification will make nonstandard fonts available as text on Web pages. Using a "lossless" compression system licensed from Agfa, OpenType will let Web designers use unusual fonts as text without any loss of resolution. The current practice is to turn nonstandard text into GIF or JPEG images before adding it to a Web page.

OpenType will also allow for unlimited character sets within a font family, a feature that should encourage use of languages such as Chinese and Japanese, according to Microsoft technical evangelist Darryn Dieken. Before OpenType fonts become a reality, typeface designers will need development toolkits. With the publication of the open specification, software makers have a green light to start developing toolkits.

Microsoft will release a Windows-only SDK strictly for font embedding in the next 30 days, with a fuller-featured toolkit planned for this summer, according to Dieken. The software giant wants to offer toolkits for Macintosh developers but hasn't set a timetable.

OpenType fonts should be available from Adobe and other sources by the beginning of 1998, according to Microsoft product manager Steve Sklepowich.

Smaller type designers who license their fonts to graphic designers are waiting to see if OpenType is a viable solution.

"At the moment, our license agreements don't permit embedding," said Tiro's Hudson, whose company does not allow electronic use of its fonts unless a document is being transferred to a print job. "If someone develops technology for secure font embedding, we'll allow it. Perhaps OpenType will be it, but we haven't yet seen it in operation."