They're Heeere. Web Fonts, That Is
Goodbye Verdana. Take a hike, Arial. After suffering through a decade and a half of purgatory, website designers are now finally free to take advantage of the typographic riches of those creating print publications. Bring on the dancing girls! Let the festivities commence! Or has a new nightmare only begun?
There is something to be said for simplicity. And for the first 15 years of the Web, the typographic side of site design was dead simple—your font stack listed ones that you could be sure existed on your visitors' systems. End of story. Sure, some folks played around with exotic kludges such as sIRF, but such approaches frankly, how do I say it? Sucked.
However, that era of innocence is now officially over, thanks to Monotype Imaging's announcement this week that it is now a web font provider. Sounds great. But first, rewind a bit, to the traditional realm of fonts for print use. Font designers and foundries have profited greatly from the move to the digital world but have long been spooked with the thought of their fonts being used for online purposes. Part of their fear was due to font piracy, which is real and shouldn't be discounted. But more of it can be attributed to a lack of browser standards, coupled with the desire of the major players to ensure that when they finally pulled the typographic trigger, it would be in such a way that their intellectual property was both protected and fully monetized. And they seem to have pulled this off.
You're no doubt familiar with the licensing models employed by stock photography vendors. The most popular with users is royalty free—once you buy an image you're free to use it for as long as you wish, for whatever projects and media you see fit. Popular, yes, but long the bane of traditional stock firms and photographers, who see it as having killed the cash cow of the earlier rights-managed model. In this case users paid a variable fee based on the use of the image, including the impressions of the print product that employed it. Think of utility companies or cell phone service providers and their immensely profitable model of metering their customers.
Lets start with availability of the fonts. Vendors wave the magic wand of "the cloud" to assure us that their fonts will always be available, but using them just added another point of failure to your site. Offshore oil wells "never" blow and volcanos "never" erupt, as we well know. And if the fonts go down? Well, we're told that our type specifications will "degrade gracefully." Try telling that to your client.
Okay, okay, I'm being a wet blanket. Web fonts are here, they use a subscription model and we have to deal with it. However, I'm betting that alternatives will arise. The current approach favors the large font providers, at the expense of the small font creators who don't have the expertise or resources to make their designs available as hosted web fonts. Third parties will no doubt arise that independent font shops can use without giving away the farm. But if, for some inexplicable reason, you feel compelled to use Helvetica on your site, then you have no recourse but to open your wallet and say hello to...
Monotype Imaging is well known to print designers, thanks to its collection of 13,000 typefaces from the Monotype, Linotype and ITC typeface libraries, which include such classic designs as Times New Roman, Helvetica and ITC Franklin Gothic. Currently provided as a beta service via its Fonts.com site, more than 2,000 fonts are now available for use, with approximately 7,000 fonts, including the ever-popular Helvetica, Frutiger and Univers, expected by commercial launch later in 2010. Differentiating the offering from other web font providers is support for 40 languages, using patent-pending Monotype Imaging technology. While details on the subscription pricing are currently unavailable, apparently a free, entry-level offering providing the ability to use more than 2,000 fonts will be available, presumably for low-traffic sites. Expect better-looking blogs.
Ascender Corp. is a longtime player in the type sector. The firm is now making available 200 fonts from its own collection, as well as from Microsoft and Monotype (again?), that are designed to render well on screen. The new font service claims to support every major web browser, including Internet Explorer 5+, Firefox 3.5+, Chrome 2.0+, Safari 3.5+, Opera 10+ and mobile Safari, found on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. The fonts make use of the Windows Azure cloud computing services platform for delivery. The benefits of this approach are claimed to be affordability, ease of use, speed of implementation and automatic updates to address new web browser versions. Ascender also offers a self-hosting option for large website developers. A free 30 day trial is currently being offered on the AscenderFonts.com site for designers to try the service, with pricing based on site bandwidth.
There's no doubt that the FontFont collection contains some of the freshest, most desirable fonts currently available. However, the few dozen provided in the Web FontFont collection don't reflect this. Rather, they're geared towards large corporate customers in love with fonts like DIN and Meta. All very nice and all but not the kind of thing to get most of us that excited. Web FontFonts are said to be optimized for screen display, especially when ClearType is enabled (you do have that enabled, don't you?). Most of them are also said to be optimized to download and display quickly, because they include only the glyphs recognized by web browsers. Ingenious, but hopefully this will be extended as browsers evolve. Users also have the option of hosting the fonts themselves or via a free Typekit account. Pricing is based on page views.
Speaking of Typekit, you can use their service directly, with pricing based on bandwidth. It provides access to selections from such libraries as FontFont, Chank and P22, with a free trial available.
Extensis is a software developer known for its Universal Type Server for server-based font management, Suitcase for single-user font management and the Portfolio suite for digital asset management. It recently announced that it was entering the web fonts market and was currently performing a closed beta on the new service that is "partnering with leading type foundries, whose thousands of quality fonts will be available to rent." This could be promising, given Extensis' deep understanding of font technology and its provision of font tools to its installed based of almost half a million designers. No comment, however, on when the service will be available.
This is also in the "coming soon" category, promising "a new palette of professional fonts tailored specifically for the web." Given the involvement of Font Bureau, Ascender (again?), Roger Black and Petr Van Blokland, Webtype.com would seem to be a promising contender.
Have you used web fonts on your site? Has your life taken on a new meaning as a result? If so, please share your experiences.