Monthly Archives: June 2009

Web Advertising: Still Annoying Readers, Still Failing To Replace Print Revenue…

Three of the “dancing idiots” class of Web ad. There’s no reason for animation, other than to attract your attention and distract you from whatever else you’re doing. (Of course that’s why they do it).

Tanya was busy doing a Web search for the word “frigate”, in connection with a section on frigate birds she’s writing for her book, when she said: “Look at this flashing advert! Haven’t advertisers learned yet that people hate them?”

“What’s your reaction to that kind of thing?” I asked.

“Oh, I would deliberately never buy anything from an advert that either flashes on my screen, or expands to cover the text I’m reading,” she replied. “I resent the way they distract you.”

A few minutes later, a former colleague sent me a link to an article about the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, in which Steve Ballmer, the Microsoft chief executive, claimed that the global advertising economy had been permanently “reset” at a lower level, warning that media companies should not plan for revenues to bounce back to pre-recession levels.

Ballmer argued that traditional broadcast and print media would have to plan business models around a smaller share of the advertising market, as revenues continue to move to digital outlets.

Two apparently unrelated pieces of data. But I believe they are connected.

Print advertising is definitely contracting, and online advertising is rapidly growing. But for “traditional” media companies, their online revenue is not growing fast enough to replace what they’re losing.

I know a little bit about newspaper advertising, since I was a newspaperman for many years, and I believe the “ad mix” is a large part of the problem.

The most lucrative advertising for both newspapers and magazines, believe it or not, used to be “classified” advertising – “small ads” by people who wanted to sell or buy stuff, find a partner, rent an apartment and so on.

Trouble is that eBay and Craigslist have already cornered that market online. And they do a better job. For instance, a friend of my son’s who lives near Seattle just bought a speaker cabinet for a 1970s bass amplifier. He found it on Craigslist – in Portland. Portland’s close enough to Seattle to drive down – but you’d never have found that ad in a local Seattle newspaper.

The second most lucrative class of advertising in newspapers was “display advertising” – full- and half-page ads, for example. These were typically very professionally produced, and usually interesting to look at. In many glossy magazines, people read the ads just as much as the content – Vogue magazine would be a good example.

This is a whole class of advertising that hasn’t yet made it onto the Web – because it depends on properly paginated content (adaptive, of course – your page will almost certainly be different to my page…)

Web technology today doesn’t yet support ads you really want to view. So advertisers resort to animation to draw your eyes. In other words, we have to put up with the “dancing idiots”…

It’s not just the content pages which need to become adaptive, of course – the ads themselves have to adapt; bringing in or leaving out content depending on the size of the “page” and the space they have to fill.

Sound too complex? It’s already been done. Those who signed up for the Microsoft WPF-based version of the New York Times Reader (the first one, now supplanted by an Adobe AIR version), saw a set of adverts which did exactly that.

I believe the company which gets this technology onto the Web and uses it to create “ads you want to view” will become the “next Google”. Unless, of course, it is Google…

My feedback – your animated ad is annoying and I will never respond to it…

White-Water Adventures With The Grandfather Of Type… (from the Bill Hill Archives)

Robert Norton, The Grandfather of Type, with typical mischievous smile
(photo © Gerald Giampa
My first encounter with Robert Norton was surreal. It was 1994, and I was working in Edinburgh, Scotland, for Aldus Europe Limited – the European subsidiary of Seattle-based Aldus Corporation, which I’d helped get started back in 1986.

I came back into the office after a few days’ vacation, and there were three voicemail messages for me – all identical. A plummy English voice said, “This is Robert Norton at Microsoft. We have a job we think you should be doing. Can you give us a call, please?”

I called Robert, and he explained that Microsoft needed someone to run its Typography group in Redmond, Washington, in which he worked. Was I interested, and could I come over for interviews? He met me for dinner the night before my infamous two-day Microsoft interview loop…

Robert was much larger than life. He was one of the key people behind Microsoft’s Windows 3.1 core fonts, which established a new standard in on-screen readability of text when they were revealed to the world in 1991.

To cut a long story short, I got the job – and became Robert’s “manager” (a non sequiteur, if ever there was). It was a job which was mostly admirer, but also equal parts cat-herder, elephant-wrangler, incredulous spectator, and occasionally terrified participant…

Robert was almost certainly Microsoft’s oldest employee at the time – a huge man, with a mischievous sense of humor and an adventurous spirit undimmed by age. He’d sailed from London to Jamaica, and I heard he had broken his ankle hang-gliding at the age of 67.

When he was poking fun at me – and because I knew he’d always take the bait – I used to call him The Grandfather of Type (anyone less like a staid old grandfather would be hard to imagine).

The only clue that he was not always in the best of health would be that he’d turn up for work in the morning still wearing a hospital identity band, having gone to the emergency room where he’d spent the night hooked up to a drip and an ECG machine.

Lunch with Robert was an adventure. He’d insist on driving. You’d buckle up, check the belt was as tight as possible, and close your eyes. On one occasion, we were planning to have lunch at a Thai restaurant in Redmond. Robert drove, in his white Range Rover. But he missed his turn, and found himself on the wrong side of a railroad track and a belt of landscaping. I often wonder what the landscapers thought of the two-foot-deep ruts that ran for a hundred yards until they petered out at the edge of the tracks (which we bounced over). A 4×4 in Robert’s hands was more a Free-Range Rover…

Robert sharing a joke with Matthew Carter

Robert knew we’d bought a beautiful piece of land on the Tolt River, not far from Redmond.”I’d love to come up and see it. I’ll bring my canoe”.
I should have known better. I’d heard rumors…

Robert duly arrived, with a huge three-man canoe he’d bought in some garage sale, lashed to the roof of a minivan.

Our house sits a couple of hundred yards from the river. But the path leading to it goes down a winding, uneven, steeply-sloping and muddy former logging trail which is undrivable. Robert and I managed to manhandle his huge canoe down to the water. It was April or May, the river was still cold with snow-melt, but on our property it was divided by an island. Most of the flow went the other side; our side was not very deep – four or five feet at most, with a fairly gentle current.

Robert and I and my son Eldon – who was perhaps six years old at the time – paddled around for a while until we’d exhausted the limited pleasures of that 400-yard stretch of river.

“I don’t fancy trying to haul the canoe back up the hill,” said Robert. “Why don’t you and I paddle it down to the bridge at Carnation (about two miles away), and Tanya can meet us there in the car?”

No-one had ever told me details about Robert’s adventures. (I think the game was to provide Robert with fresh victims first, then tell them afterwards – you got better stories that way). I assumed that a man who’d sailed a yacht from London to Jamaica knew what he was doing in a canoe. But something made me hand my wallet, car keys and all the other contents of my pockets to Tanya before we set off…

The first stretch wasn’t too bad, except for the branch sticking out of the log-jam, which nearly swept us both into the water when the current sucked us underneath it. I saw Robert disappear beneath a thick pile of cedar fronds; I had enough warning to duck.

Then we reached the part of the river where the two separate flows around the island merged back together, and we learned why the native Snoqualmie people called the river Toltue – which means “Swift Water”…

We ran down a small section of ripples, and the canoe grounded right at the top of a steep section of white water, at the end of which it took a sharp bend to the left, and seemed to be fast-flowing but level after that.

“What do you think?” I asked apprehensively. “It looks fine,” said Robert.

We both pushed hard with our paddles. The canoe took off like a rocket down the white water, banked sharply at the bend and turned upside down, pitching us both into the river. I was trapped underneath, jammed by the current between it and a large rock, but with my head above water and able to breathe. I couldn’t see Robert.

I frantically struggled out of the grip of the current, ducked under the hull and spotted Robert disappearing downstream, floating backwards and blowing like a breaching whale (luckily, we were both wearing lifejackets).

The one thought running through my head was what I’d say next day to my boss at Microsoft – Steve Shaiman. “Oh, no! I’ve lost the Grandfather of Type!”

It was about then I realized, first of all how cold the water was, and second that there was a woman frantically jumping up and down on the deck of her house overlooking the river, shouting, “You guys are crazy! That water was snow a couple of hours ago! A woman drowned there, just last week!”

The current was a bit slower downstream. Robert managed to beach himself on the wrong side of the river, then waded back. He was blue with cold, covered in bruises and small cuts – and otherwise totally unconcerned. Just another boating adventure…

He was persuaded by the couple who owned the house into a hot shower and dry clothes. Next day he went back and retrieved the fiberglass canoe, which was broken-up enough that it would never make another trip.

I told the story in the office next day. Then colleagues would come over and say, “Did you hear about the time Robert…”

My former colleague George Moore tells the story of how he went for a rowing-trip with Robert on Lake Washington – in Robert’s inflatable dinghy, which began to rapidly deflate while they were out in the middle of the lake. George spent the return trip, red-faced, with his mouth glued to the inflation-valve, trying desperately to keep the craft inflated enough to make the shore…

Robert Norton 1929-2001. Never forgotten.

Advertising Is Not A Magic Windmill For eBooks Or Professional Content…

Cartoon from Married To The Sea (c) 2002-2009 Drew and Natalie

I’m grateful to my former colleague Kevin Larson, of the ClearType and Readability Research team at Microsoft, for posting the link to this cartoon on FaceBook. It made me laugh, because of course it also made me think.

All sorts of people with all kinds of political opinions read this blog.

Some are revolutionaries: “All content must be free! News should be free! Books should be free!”

Some are professional news publishers: “We’ve made our news free on the Web, and we’re hoping that we can make a good enough income from advertising to pay for gathering it, but it’s tough since we can’t sell full-page display ads any more, and we can see newspapers going out of business – but we live in hope”.

Some are book publishers: “We’re experimenting with digital books but we don’t want to cannibalize our existing print business, although that means we still have to carry its production costs, and we’re afraid that once books get out there in digital formats they’ll just be copied and we’ll lose all revenue”.

Many revolutionaries believe that most professional publishers are big corporate entities who have been making obscene profits and controlling what information makes it into print. “Just like the record companies did with music, and we know what happened to them…”.

It’s a worry. I don’t think it’s heresy to say that not all writers – and not all information – are created equal. I think it’s a good thing that the barriers to publishing have come down. A lot of material which didn’t get published in the past – but deserved to be – now has the ability to compete on equal terms with professionally-published content. But you ought to be able to depend on professionally-published content to be better-written, -edited and -produced. If the professional content isn’t better, then it deserves to lose out.

I can’t for the life of me see how you can get advertising to pay for books. It may pay for news. But even there, I have to say I’m spoiled by my life as a Brit until less than 15 years ago. Anyone brought up on the BBC has a hard time watching US television, (or listening to US radio) because of the way the programs are so broken up by advertising. Even commercial television in the UK confined its adverts to between programs or in slots every 15 minutes during programs (at least, it used to – things may have changed…)

The BBC received its income from the UK Government – which got part of that back from viewers via the annual TV License fee. The model of state-funded TV worked in the case of the BBC – which always seemed independent enough to get into trouble with the Government of the Day, whatever its political complexion. Of course, in many countries it doesn’t work that way…

Microsoft and Real Networks are trying an “unlimited music for a monthly license fee” model. Remains to be seen how that will pan out, especially given Apple’s virtual monopoly of the digital music player marketplace.

I’d really like to hear people’s ideas on this issue, related to reading material. But positive ideas only, please! If you just want to rant at The System or The Mindless Revolutionaries, please do it somewhere else…

Ascender Proposes New Web Font Format To Break Font Embedding Logjam…

Ascender: Trying to break a logjam sweet if they succeed…

Font vendor Ascender Corporation has proposed a new solution – based on a new Webfont format – which it hopes will solve the problem of using fonts on the Web and meet the needs of both Web designers and font developers.

The proposal has been put forward to try to break a logjam over Web font embedding, involving two competing solutions to support fonts on the Web using the @font-face support in the CSS 2.1 specification.

  • Embedded OpenType – proposed by Microsoft and implemented in Internet Explorer
  • Linking to raw TrueType and OpenType fonts, implemented by Firefox, Chrome and Opera
Font vendors have opposed raw font linking because the threat they feel it poses to their Intellectual Property.

At the same time, Firefox, Chrome and Opera oppose EOT because they believe it gives Microsoft an unfair advantage (since Internet Explorer has supported it since 1996), and because they feel it is too complex, smacks too much of Digital Rights Management, and has IP issues associated with the compression it uses.

The Ascender proposal is for a new .OTW web font format, to replace both raw fonts and EOT. It claims the new Web-specific format will ensure that all fonts, both free fonts and commercial fonts, can be used on web sites.

In announcing the proposal, Ascender said: “High quality typography on the web will never reach its full potential unless the needs of web designers and font developers are addressed. This solution is easy for designers to use and for browser makers to implement, and can be scaled from single page blogs to large corporate web sites. Our solution is also free of proprietary and patent roadblocks, and most importantly is, in our opinion, acceptable to font developers wishing to minimize unauthorized use and uncontrolled re-distribution of their font software.

“Most font developers believe that without a technological check-point (even a simple one), that web developers and server owners will not understand that they may not simply copy a font from a workstation and use it on the web. Further, many are concerned about ‘deep linking/inline linking’ by unlicensed third parties.”

The new format includes proposals for subsetting, to reduce the size of files which would have to be downloaded for fonts with large character sets (e.g. Japanese or Korean), and simple obfuscation of the raw font files to create a barrier to hinder unauthorized font usage.

For technical details of how the new format will work and how new .OTW fonts would be created, see the Font Embedding website.

Ascender sent me a copy of the proposal and asked for my views.

Although I was the person who first proposed that Microsoft should open up its previously-proprietary EOT solution and present it to the W3C as OpenSource, I have to say that I don’t care what the eventual accepted Webfont solution turns out to be, as long as:
  1. Font vendors are happy enough with the proposal that they agree to license fonts for Web use.
  2. All the browsers support one single standard.
And that’s really the acid test for Ascender’s announcement : Will both font vendors and browsers support it?

This issue needs to get solved. I await the responses with bated breath…

eBooks Will Make More Headway On Reading Than The "Vanilla Web"…

Here’s what I want my online book to look like to the reader: A screenshot of the original print version, taken from Adobe InDesign on the Macintosh

As my online friend Richard Fink surmised, I was unable to resist making some experiments to try reproducing Tanya’s illustrated book on the Web.

If you read the comments on my previous post, you’ll see also that Roger Sperberg asked a key question: “Do you think that ebooks — even ones on ereaders that share rendering engines with browsers, like Bookworm — will make more headway on (readability) than the web in general?”

I’m sorry to have to say that the answer is that I’m certain readers will do better – at least the ones that don’t share rendering engines with browsers – and that the Web cannot become a real platform for publishing while the final display of book content for the reader is at the mercy of those different rendering engines, because they destroy any hope of consistency for publishers – even using standard markup.

It’s a sad fact that increasingly-popular Web standards are no help to the online book publisher at all. To test this, I was careful to use only Web-standards HTML and CSS3, and validate it with the W3C’s tools.

Here’s what FireFox did with my content on the Macintosh. Safari 4 did exactly the same. The image failed to move up to the second column. So now the reader has to scroll to see the image, and can’t see the image title in the heading – which should appear alongside it.

Internet Explorer produced pretty much the same on Windows as FF and Safari did on the Macintosh

The best of a poor bunch…FireFox on Windows

As you can see from these screen shots, the results were disappointing. The pages were all created on my MacBook Pro laptop, 17-inch, 133ppi (1920 x 1200). I had hoped (oh, you poor deluded and naive fool, Bill!) that if I got the results the way I wanted on my screen, then users with smaller displays could use browser zoom to make the pages fit their own. That’s the way it ought to work.

However, the same markup rendered differently on each browser. FireFox on Windows, and Internet Explorer, at least have FullScreen views (and the FF developers have done some work on it recently – I can tell because I filed a repaint bug a few weeks ago, and now the problem’s gone…)

I want FullScreen because I want readers to be able to get the effect of the book design without any annoying menus, toolbars, favorites bars or any of the other rubbish which is necessary when you’re browsing, but visually distracting when you’re trying to read. I never want scrolling in a book of this type!

FullScreen doesn’t exist in Safari, or in FireFox on the Macintosh.

Are any of the browser developers listening to publishers of content meant for sustained, immersive reading? It doesn’t look like it to me.

The potential of the Web for illustrated content ought to be huge. For example, there are thousands of beautifully illustrated books which not many people can afford – like for instance, the Arthur Rackham-illustrated version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It ought to be easily possible to put works like this online. But the only really satisfactory versions of these I’ve seen are in “reader” applications created for that purpose (either as browser plugins or standalone applications).

As long as there’s no consistency between rendering on different Web browsers, they’ll never be able to handle this kind of content in the right way. And does anyone seriously believe we’d ever get all the browser teams to agree to do this? No chance whatsoever.

One interesting fact I did find during this experiment was that – on my 133ppi machine – the best rendering of the text itself, in the particular font I used, was on the Macintosh, and not using ClearType on Windows…

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe that the best reading experience you can get is on Windows, using ClearType with a font optimized for that purpose.

However, creating a font like that involves a non-trivial amount of hinting. The font I chose for the book was Papyrus, which isn’t well-hinted at all, and has a deliberately-ragged edge to the characters, which are themselves pretty thin and spidery.

I picked Papyrus for its artistic look. It suited the content admirably, and works nicely when printed. On the screen, however, the best-rendered versions are definitely the ones created using the Macintosh engine. It’s probably also a result of the higher resolution of this screen. At lower resolutions, Mac rendering is blurrier – but the blur becomes less intrusive as resolution gets better. I’ve included a comparison below as a 24-bit bitmap graphic so there’s no fudging of the issue by JPEG or other compression. Click on it to see the actual unscaled image.

Rendering comparisons: The Macintosh versions on the left look much better on my display than the ClearType ones on the right. Safari 4 rendering on the Macintosh is identical to FireFox – which is the best by a long way (and obviously both using the same Mac OSX system rendering) – even better than the original in InDesign for reading on screen…

A Tale of Two Pages: It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times…

The cover of Tanya’s book (© Tanya Hill, 2009)

Over the past few months, I’ve spent quite a lot of my time designing and building Web pages to try to improve my knowledge, learn Web-standards HTML and CSS, and see how far I could push readability. I became immersed in learning ways to overcome the serious limitations which still exist on the Web.

However, now I have time on my hands I have been undertaking a project for my artist wife Tanya, who has been studying and painting the native wetland birds on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. She has an exhibition scheduled for next year, and we’d like to publish a book to coincide with it. For more on the wetland birds, see Tanya’s blog.

So I’ve found myself back in old territory – creating what I hope will be a high-quality, heavily-illustrated, printed book.

The highly-endangered Hawaiian gallinule: Courting in the reeds
(© Tanya Hill, 2009)

It has been a really enlightening experience to be able to compare the two processes – printed-page design, and Web page design.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens (From A Tale of Two Cities), as far as producing print is concerned, this is The Best of Times… The publishing tools available to the print designer are outstanding, highly-evolved, easy to learn and use. Many of the problems which used to beset print production in the past are long gone – for example, color matching, now taken care of by the systems themselves. Once set up, you can forget it.

When it comes to creating Web content, I believe this is still The Worst of Times. No-one has yet produced the right Web authoring tool, because the geeks – and not the “creative professionals” are in control. Oh, I know that’s a gross over-simplification. Many creative professionals have forced themselves to learn Web technology, and many geeks are also creative.

But the process of visual design and great typography on the Web is still far too hard.

After some thought, I picked Adobe’s InDesign publishing software to design, lay out and typeset the pages. In the past, I’ve mostly used Microsoft Publisher, since I worked at the company and it was installed as part of Microsoft Office.

However, this time I’m working with many large high-resolution scanned images, cropped and cleaned up in Adobe Photoshop. And I have to be sure that the color-matching is correct all the way through the process. Adobe Bridge allows you to synchronize color handling across all your Creative Suite applications. Hence InDesign seemed like the logical choice…

The scans are done by ArtScans in California, who have been doing terrific work for us for years, creating scans of Tanya’s artwork we use to produce high-quality prints for sale. The scan files come to us with an embedded ArtScans color profile, which Photoshop picks up and uses. Some of the scans are 530Mb or more in size.

The InDesign process is simple. Choose your page size, margins etc. Flow in the text. Choose typefaces and sizes for body text, headings etc. Place the pictures. Proof the results on an ink-jet printer. Create a package with all the files and send it to the printer. Of course there are lots of details to take of – but it’s all really straightforward.

Heading stack, drop capital, nice font! Oh, to be able to do this easily on the Web!

Key parts of the visual effect you create are the typefaces you choose, and of course there are tens of thousands from which to pick. I got creative and built a “heading stack” which uses three different sizes of the same typeface, creatively linespaced into a kind of “vertical kerning”.

What a delight the whole process is, compared with the brutality, crudeness and downright missing functionality of Web authoring.

Take the fonts, for instance. I picked Papyrus, because I felt it suited the artistic nature of the content. No problem. And because InDesign is a professional’s tool, it knows that I have no true bold or italic versions of this font on my system – so it won’t let me choose them, and thus won’t create horrible, computer-skewed or emboldened bastardized versions. (Italic text is NOT slanted Roman!)

I couldn’t use Papyrus on the Web – not unless I wanted to either limit myself to users running Internet Explorer and hence with Embedded OpenType support, or create my text as bitmaps – ugh!

Try to create the heading stack and be sure it will display correctly on any Web browser? Unless you create a bitmap, you couldn’t. And of course people viewing the bitmap on different-resolution displays would get different sizes. Using Zoom to scale it would look awful, and so on and on and on…

Publishing is a highly-creative process. Creative writing. Creative editing. Creative Design and layout. Creative Typography. At least print publishing is. Web publishing tries to be, but you keep running up against the limitations of the medium.

It won’t last forever. It will get better. Print’s had 550 years to evolve. The Web hasn’t even had two decades. But the sooner we solve the problem of fonts on the Web – and the sooner someone builds a great Web design tool for creative people who don’t want to learn to be software engineers, the better…

Let’s get a standard set of markup and CSS defined. Let’s have all browsers support it and display it in the same way. Let’s get adaptive layout in place so the content looks its best on whatever display it’s viewed.

It’s not rocket science. But until it’s done the Web won’t be a real publishing platform.

Red-footed booby (© Tanya Hill, 2009)

Font Industry Needs To Step Up – To The Screen…

A PageMaker 3.5-inch diskette – I still have my original set from 1985…

The explosion of word processing and desktop publishing in the 1980s was a huge bonanza for the font industry. It took the arcane world of printing and typesetting – previously only accessible to those willing to make large capital investments – and opened it up to anyone who had a desktop computer and a printer.
Laser printers made it possible for anyone to create high-quality output. You could proof work and know that it was a true representation of what you’d get when you output the same files to a high-resolution imagesetter. “What You See Is What You Get” was the mantra of the day…

The result of all this was that millions of people who would previously never have known or cared about fonts realized they had to have them. Font sales went through the roof.

So did font piracy, of course. Many people ignored the time and effort which went into making fonts, and blithely passed on copies to friends. This happened on such a scale that the industry could not police individuals; instead, it focused its energies on selling fonts to design professionals, and site licenses to corporations which previously had bought only one copy of a font. But there were lots of sales, and times were good.

The intended final output of desktop publishing was print, which would be created at high resolution. So screen representations of fonts were pretty poor. In the beginning, your system had two different sets of fonts – high-resolution outlines for print, and low-resolution bitmaps for the screen. What You See Is Sort Of Like What You Get…

Then along came scalable font technology. You no longer needed bitmap fonts for the screen; those were created on the fly from the high-resolution outlines. Of course, it wasn’t that simple – there weren’t enough pixels to represent all the features of characters, especially at body-text sizes like 10point and 12point. So trade-offs had to be made.(Anyone who’d like to know a lot more about these issues should read Richard Rubinstein’s book, Digital Typography, in my list of Books I Recommend).

The tradeoffs were made by creating programs which told the screen rasterizer (the software which scales the high-resolution outlines to size and then fills them with dots) what to do at specific sizes and specific resolutions. These programs were called hints.

There were two different paths:
  • Microsoft: We pick TrueType, because it gives us control down to the individual pixel and we can make the rasterizer create exactly the bitmaps we want.
  • Adobe: That’s too much work. We’ll make the rasterizer itself smarter, and have a more basic hinting structure. And we’ll stick with our own font format.
That was the whole basis of The Font Wars…

Both were right – and both were wrong.

Microsoft created the best onscreen fonts I’d ever seen. But the work involved was huge. A team of folks from Microsoft and Monotype created thousands lines of programming for each font. It was a tour de force – and a tour de wallet; no other company with pockets less deep could have done it.

So Adobe was right, too. In those days, it was too expensive to contemplate, for companies and individuals without the ability to amortize costs across millions of copies of Windows and Office. Monotype, around 1997, produced a set of fonts which they called Enhanced Screen Quality. They were a little better than the norm – but their quality didn’t come near that of the Windows 3.1 core fonts.

Those Windows fonts were “brute force” hinted, with lots of Delta hints (adjustments down to tiny levels of detail such as: in this font, in the letter ‘a’, at 10point, on a 96ppi display, turn on this pixel). What often happened is that the hinter had to artificially distort the shape of the outline to force a pixel to fall inside or outside it, so the rasterizer would turn it on (or off)

For a detailed explanation of hinting, see the Microsoft Typography website.

The TrueType programming language in which you created those instructions was nothing like that friendly or understandable. You not only had to have a typographer’s eye, but you had to be able to program in an assembler-like syntax. There are only a handful of real experts in the world.

ClearType exposed problems with that “brute force” approach. Weird things would happen to some of those original distorted outlines. Characters would explode, or collapse.

The old hinting model had to be re-thought. What came out of that was a kinder, gentler – and much easier – approach to hinting. By way of years of investment, the hinting tools also became much easier to use, even acquiring a GUI.

Adobe’s screen fonts have also improved markedly over the years.

Screen resolutions are improving. With ClearType rendering (and its clones), and technologies like eInk, we are close to the tipping-point.

We’re in the middle of the biggest publishing explosion in history. But people are publishing to the screen, not paper.They’ll want great fonts for the screen – so for a second time there’s a huge potential market.

There are still issues around font linking versus font embedding as a solution to the problem of fonts on the Web. But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, and I’m confident there will be a practical solution soon, acceptable to the font industry as well as web developers and regular users.

It doesn’t matter that it won’t be the Embedded OpenType format I recommended. EOT acted as a catalyst to motivate everyone – those who proposed different solutions, those who just opposed anything from Microsoft, and the font industry itself – which needed to bond together to secure its own future.

The font industry must realize by now that print is going away. There’s little doubt of that. My former boss, Dick Brass, once predicted that the New York Times would print its last paper edition in 2018. He was ridiculed at the time. But with the recent closures of newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he may actually have been too conservative in his prediction. I wonder if the New York Times actually has nine more paper years left…

Eventually the trillions of corporate documents printed every year will go away too. Once we have reached the point where reading on screen is as good as reading from paper, the many other benefits of digital documents really come into play:

  • Storing documents
  • Finding the document you need
  • Keeping documents up to date
  • etc.
The font industry needs to realize that if it has a future, it’s on the screen. And it needs to focus on that. Not all the fonts which worked for print will work well on screen until we have 300ppi displays.

We need new fonts designed for on-screen reading. And we can’t leave it to Microsoft to provide them, as it has done in the past.