Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Letters We take For Granted

I’m not typing this on my normal laptop. The one I normally take on the road with me didn’t die – but it might as well have!

The problem’s so simple you’d think you can just work around it. The letter “e” on the keyboard stopped working…

As key failures go, it couldn’t have been any worse. Cryptographers and code-breakers have known for a very long time that E is the most-used letter in the English language – and I presume for just about any of the Latin-based languages, too. So its #1 in the Frequency Table of letters you try when cracking simple substitution codes.

Yes, there’s a workaround. The spell-checker in Word, for instance, will automatically turn “kyboard” into “keyboard” – but it doesn’t catch anything like all of the missing letters automatically, and selecting suggestions manually is a pain when every second or third word has a red squiggle under it.

Of course, if you’re really stuck, you can always find an “e” somewhere, copy it into your clipboard and paste it in with Ctrl-V instead of typing it. But try doing that for even a short email and see how wearing it gets.

We take the alphabet so much for granted. It has been described as the biggest breakthrough humans have ever made.

The alphabet marks the major divergence between two sets of languages – alphabetic and pictographic.

With an alphabet, making up new words is easy. You just pick from the library of 26 or 28 letters, there are standard prefixes and suffixes, and – hey presto! – a new word. Because it’s made up of standard components, it’s fairly easy for anyone to figure out what it means.

To a certain extent the same is true in Chinese, Japanese or Korean. There are re-usable components. But it gets very complicated, and you end up with, say 20,000 or more Kanji characters and it’s about impossible for anyone to learn them all.

The Latin-based languages used to be pictographic, too. The letter A, for instance, started life the other way up -as a picture of an ox. When it travelled from the Middle East to Greece in the writing of the Phoenicians, it was rotated 90 degrees to become the letter alpha, eventually making the full 180-degree rotation into the A as we know it today.

For a fascinating book on this subject – which is also great for getting children interested – read Oscar’s Ogg’s The 26 Letters. I see there’s actually a copy for sale on Amazon for the princely sum of 92 cents…

Another interesting fact about an alphabet. It gives words a directionality. You can read the word “ate” just fine, but can you make sense of “eta”?

One of the early forms of Greek writing (~700BC) used left-to-right and right-to-left writing on alternate lines. This form of writing was called boustrephon, which means “as the ox plows the field”. In other words, writing was an unbroken trail of meaning.

However, as alphabets became widely used, it was seen that this form of writing no longer worked if words had a “direction”. So instead we adopted a convention of reading from left-to-right only (for Latin languages), and making a rapid right-to-left eye movement to the beginning of the next line. This innovation worked, and that’s how we read today.


Font Creators Need To Make Up Their Minds – Fast – About Fonts on the Web

Last week I attended a one-day conference on “The Business of Type” organized by the Font Designers’ Rights Coalition – a body which concerns itself with helping to ensure font designers’ IP is protected and they get the proper return for the investment they make in time and expertise.

As anyone who reads this blog will know, it’s a goal I strongly support.

I was a little disappointed that at least some of the designers who spoke still seemed “stuck in the 20th Century”, and more concerned about graphics and print service bureaux keeping and using illicit copies of their custom fonts which they’d received from customers to output their print jobs, than the potential threat the Web poses to their future unless they act quickly.

Talk about not seeing the wood for the trees! While that is an issue, it’s totally dwarfed by the risk to font IP from the Web, and especially the proposal from the Opera browser folks to the WorldWideWeb Consortium (W3C) that Web designers should be able to point to any font put up on a server as a raw font file.

In public, the Open Source folks will confirm that they know this means web designers can use only freeware fonts (most of which aren’t very good, because they haven’t had the time and money invested in them).

But like a lot of the Open Source statements, it’s impossible not to get the impression that what they really mean is “wink,wink – we know you’ll copy commercial fonts up there and our proposal will let you do that, but we can’t say so in public”.

A large proportion of them believe that fonts, like all other software, should be free, and this proposal would erode font value in no time.

Today, the font industry does a pretty good job of policing font piracy. If you put commercial fonts up on a server for illegal sale, it’s almost certain they’ll find them and take action, first with “cease and desist” letters and later if necessary with stronger measures.

But if fonts begin to be routinely put up on servers in much greater numbers to service millions of Web pages, the policing system will break down because it’s not set up to handle issues on that sort of scale.

Our friend Thomas Phinney from Adobe also spoke at the conference. He unveiled data from a survey Adobe just completed which made it clear that web designers want to be able to use the fonts they know and love for print – in other words, commercial fonts – and not freeware ones. At the same time, Tom had encouraging data which showed that most designers understood the value of font IP, would be very reluctant or completely opposed to pirating fonts, and wanted a system which would make it easy for them to do the right thing.

I think we’re all indebted to Thomas and Adobe for carrying out this study.

The font industry hasn’t really helped matters with its attitude so far. Microsoft has had a reasonably secure Internet font embedding technology in Internet Explorer for more than a decade, but many font houses don’t allow their fonts to be used in this way because of paranoia about the risk to their IP of fonts being used on the Web. Then again, we made mistakes, too. We kept it a proprietary Microsoft format instead of opening it up as a Web standard (a mistake we’ve now rectified).

We had a good, lively discussion at the conference. I pointed out that failing to speak out against the “raw fonts on a server” proposal could well lead the industry down a dark and dangerous road. If they did not oppose this measure and adopt and support a reasonable alternative, they might find that they ended up in the worst of all possible worlds, in which fonts become free.

Once a font is posted on a server, anyone can point to it – or even worse, download it and use it on their computer system. Our Embedded OpenType (EOT) technology was designed to put obstacles in the way of people casually pirating fonts in this way just because it’s so easy.

Some of the font designers who spoke still seemed to have this quaint idea that their customers were the “printing and publishing industry”. While that may have been true in the past, the reality is that now, with the Web and email, everyone’s a publisher. Instead of a (substantial in size but proportionally small) subset, there are a billion potential customers out there – if the font industry can figure out how to support them in the right way.

Fonts on the Web need to behave just like fonts for print. If I’m a designer of a magazine, for instance, I can buy one legal copy of a font, and use it to create as many copies or editions of that magazine as I like. Everyone who reads that magazine gets to “use” the copy of the font it contains – no matter if the magazine sells millions of copies.

It should work just the same on the Web. If a website designer buys a legitimate copy of a font, he or she should be able to use it on their site, and everyone who visits that site ought to be able to read it in the typeface the designer specified. But they shouldn’t be able to use that font in any other task or document on their own computer system, unless they themselves buy a legitimate copy.

You can’t do that today. There’s no standard system for “embedding” a font in a webpage. The only way a reader will see it – unless you use one of the “common” webfonts – is if they have an actual copy of that font on their own machine. That’s the issue EOT embedding was designed to address.

This needs to get fixed soon – before fonts go the same way as digital music, and the font industry hits the same problems with which the music industry is now struggling.

There’s bound to be a way of leveraging the needs of a billion publishers into a decent return on investment. High volume, low cost is the business model on which Microsoft was founded, and we haven’t done so badly. Maybe the font industry needs to take a leaf out of that book.

Scotland Flowering Again?

I was at an interesting event last night in Seattle’s Rainier Club – the kick-off reception for Scotland Week, organized by Scottish Development International.

I don’t have much time for politicians; when I was a newspaperman back in Scotland I saw way too much of most of them. It didn’t seem like any of them really had the ideas – or even the will – to solve the problems of high unemployment, and everything else that goes with it, which is especially bad in the West of Scotland. When I visited Scotland briefly a few years ago, it seemed as if the Edinburgh area was prospering, but Glasgow and the West was still locked into a cycle of deprivation.

But last night I got a surprise. Speaking at the reception was Jim Mather, the new Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism in the Scottish Government. In a real voting upset, the Scottish National Party achieved a one-vote majority a few months ago.

Jim sounded not only like he really knew what he was doing, but he also clearly had a lot of business and industry experience before becoming a politician. Political theories sound great, but unless ideas are founded on real-world knowledge IMO they’re doomed to failure.

The Scottish Government has only limited power, of course. The UK Government in London still holds the purse-strings.

But there’s no reason Scotland can’t be as prosperous as Ireland, which has undergone a transformation over the past decade. Or even more prosperous. It has a great education system, and many smart people with real drive.

I liked what I heard. Got a chance to speak to Jim later. Liked him even more.

I think there’s a good chance the Scots may actually pull this off.

I’ll be watching with interest over the next few years.