Monthly Archives: December 2011

Apple updates iBooks with new book fonts

An iBooks page, showing one of the new book fonts, Iowan, and the new Full Screen view.
Apple this week shipped a new version of its iBooks reader with four new fonts, picked especially for reading books on screen. 
Although I love reading books on my iPad, I’ve always felt Apple could have done better for its iBooks reader than picking a selection from its OS fonts. Now it has…
The fonts include three serif faces – Iowan, Athelas and Charter – as well as the sans serif face, Seravek. The more observant will have noticed that it has replaced Verdana, which is gone. 
The new fonts have been combined with other improvements, including a new Full Screen view which removes the visually distracting “page edges” graphic and leaves a beautifully clean reading page. 
Iowan is a real gem of a book font. I’m currently reading a Robert Heinlein SF novel, in Iowan, in Full Screen mode, on my original iPad, and it’s the best eBook reading experience I’ve had yet. 
You might think I’d be irate about the loss of Verdana, as the person who originally commissioned Matthew Carter to design it in 1995 (it was my first major project after I took over as leader of Microsoft’s Typography group in 1995) However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Verdana was originally intended to improve reading on the Web, and it was amazingly successful at doing that. It set a whole new standard for reading on the Web. But with its large x-height and very generous spacing, it never felt comfortable as an eBook font.
Verdana’s serif stablemate, Georgia – also designed by Matthew – is a better book face. Indeed, until Apple shipped its new faces this week, Georgia was probably the best and most popular font picked by customers for reading on their iPads and iPhones. 
The view that Verdana and Georgia are not very suitable for eBooks is not merely personal. When I was part of Microsoft’s eBooks team, we decided that neither was good enough for the sustained reading involved in books. So we built a new version of the serif font, Berling, for Microsoft Reader running on PCs, laptops and dedicated eBook devices (we had a 150ppi, full-color, book-sized prototype device of our own which we had built). For the smaller screens of PDAs and phones, we built a new version of Frutiger in collaboration with Linotype – called Frutiger Linotype. 
The fact that we spent so much time and money creating new faces – when we already owned Verdana and Georgia outright and had spent a great deal of money on hinting, character set coverage etc., speaks for itself. 
Georgia may previously have been the best iBooks font. But I for one never felt totally comfortable with it as a book face. There’s something very dark and “vertical” about the way it feels. 
I’m guessing what I’m feeling at an intuitive level harks back to the original design constraints. The brief to Matthew was to design two new typefaces – one serif and one sans serif – specifically for reading onscreen at the then-current screen resolutions of between 88 and 96 pixels per inch. This was three years before we’d invented ClearType, when lack of resolution on screens was felt more in the horizontal axis than in the vertical (at least for Latin-based languages).
So Matthew began by creating optimal screen bitmaps for the fonts at the two most important sizes for reading – 10 and 12 point. The resolution-independent outlines were created only after we knew the exact bitmaps we wanted at those sizes, and the outlines were then hinted to make sure those were what the Windows TrueType rasterizer actually generated.
The point of going over all this history is really just to say that Verdana and Georgia were the best anyone could do for reading on a screen back in 1995. But with screen resolutions of 133ppi for today’s iPads (soon to be double that if the rumors about iPad 3 are true) and the stunning resolution of the iPhone’s Retinal Display, we can do better, 20 years on. 
If you have an iPad or iPhone, give Iowan and Full Screen a whirl. I think you’ll like it…