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We had font, font, font ’til Billy took Verdana aw-a-a-y

August 26, 2002

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There must be some iron law about my columns. There have been several times when I have written a column about a browser, only to have the next version appear within days of its publication. Now, I mention the Andale Mono monospaced font in my column on marking up computer code, and guess what? Microsoft ceases distributing the free TrueType fonts it used to offer. These fonts, including Andale Mono, were designed to look good onscreen and intended to be used for eb page text. There is now only a message stating that the fonts are no longer available.

Is this a big drama? I don’t think so. All of these fonts come with a default installation of Internet Explorer 5 and above, so that covers Windows users. They also come with the default installation of Mac OS X and Internet Explorer 5.x for Mac OS 9, so that covers Mac users. (If you’re wondering what fonts are installed by default on the Mac OS, Microsoft’s typography site actually publishes a list). The only people left out of these default channels are users of alternative platforms, like Linux and the various BSD flavors. So naturally, they are the users most up in arms about the action, whether on Slashdot, OSNews or ExtremeTech.

Even they should not be too concerned, though; the fonts are still freely available from SourceForge. There was nothing in the licence that obviously prevents redistribution, so there’s no reason why SourceForge or some other distribution point couldn’t provide this service indefinitely. Industry bully though it may be, Microsoft has the right to use its own bandwidth as it sees fit. If certain Linux distributors had gone to the effort of working out how to distribute the fonts themselves, including the appropriate licencing agreement, instead of sending each of their customers off to the Microsoft site individually, maybe Microsoft wouldn’t have made this decision.

Of course, there’s more to its decision than bandwidth. The licensing arrangements described in the End-User Licence Agreement (EULA) explicitly prohibits redistribution for profit, including redistribution as part of another commercial product. Open-source or not, if you pay for a Linux distribution, it’s a commercial product for the purposes of this licence, so it can’t include these fonts either directly or indirectly through automated download tools. Offering a mirror such as the one on SourceForge is one thing; making money by selling a product that includes these fonts is quite another. Microsoft might not be GPL-pure, but that’s no excuse for violating the terms of a licence, especially when that licence looks pretty similar to just about every licence I’ve seen for non-open-source freeware.

If you’re curious, here’s the relevant paragraph from the EULA.

1. GRANT OF LICENSE. This EULA grants you the following rights: • Installation and Use. You may install and use an unlimited number of copies of the SOFTWARE PRODUCT. • Reproduction and Distribution. You may reproduce and distribute an unlimited number of copies of the SOFTWARE PRODUCT; provided that each copy shall be a true and complete copy, including all copyright and trademark notices, and shall be accompanied by a copy of this EULA. Copies of the SOFTWARE PRODUCT may not be distributed for profit either on a standalone basis or included as part of your own product.

When bad things remind us of good principles

There are many lessons from this seemingly minor incident. The most obvious one, I would hope, is that there are more fonts in Microsoft’s core font pack than Verdana and Georgia. Sure, you see the odd site in Trebuchet, if the designer is trying to stand out from the crowd, but few bother with the obvious heading fonts like Arial Black or Impact. I think that’s a pity. There’s just so much Verdana and Georgia around. I’m reminded of the way everyone piled into Times and Helvetica when laser printers first came out. Sure, the standard LaserWriter fonts included non-entities like Avant Garde and Bookman – Adobe should be shot for this decision, when it could have used, say, Gill Sans and Bembo or a Garamond. Maybe Palatino and New Century Schoolbook weren’t to some people’s tastes, but really, was there any excuse for the overuse of two of the blandest fonts known to typography? So it is with Verdana and Georgia; I might use Georgia as my default serif font for Web browsing, but it would be nice to see a few folks break out of that mould. For some ideas, check out Mark Newhouse’s tips on fonts for Unix, and the CodeStyle survey of the distribution of different fonts on Unix – you might be surprised.

Another lesson is that open source isn’t the answer to everything. While there were a few gung-ho folks on Slashdot willing to let a thousand beginner font designers bloom, wiser heads weighed in. As a correspondent to the Register described the situation:

Most of the fonts which come with Windows and Macintosh, and those in Microsoft’s Web fonts pack, are/were licensed from other type foundries. Times New Roman is licensed from Monotype, who originally completed the design for the Times in 1932. Arial is also a Monotype license (although it appears to be a modification of one of Monotype’s other designs to make it more interchangeable with Helvetica). Tahoma, Verdana, Trebuchet and Comic Sans were all commissioned by Microsoft for various purposes. In each case, they represent a large tranche of work, which, unsurprisingly, the designers want to get paid for – because they’re professional designers.

Designing fonts is hard, and if the Linux community hasn’t produced decent fonts yet, it isn’t going to any time soon. I wouldn’t expect decent-looking fonts from a community that values function over form, anyway. So the fonts for open-source operating systems are going to come from elsewhere. Why nobody has suggested the repurposing of the free PostScript fonts used in various distributions of TeX, I’ll never know – personally I think Utopia is quite attractive. High-quality fonts take a lot of resources to design, so they are only going to be free if their creation has been subsidised by an organisation, be it Microsoft, Apple or the American Mathematical Society.

The broader lesson is one that is dear to the heart of any Web author concerned about Web standards. Opera’s error in handling CSS px units on the Mac reminded us that a CSS px isn’t always a physical pixel, and that a physical pixel doesn’t involve the same degree of readability for all users. As 200dpi screens become commercially viable, stylesheets setting font sizes of 10px or 11px will border on grounds for justifiable homicide. Similarly, the apparent, if not actual, withdrawal of Microsoft’s Web fonts ought to have reminded us that we have less control over the presentation of Web content to readers than we imagine.

If the news made you worry whether your readers were seeing your site in Verdana after all, you were forgetting all the platforms that don’t fit into the narrow two-platform world. Just because Linux users could download these fonts didn’t mean that they did download them. Just because Windows comes with certain fonts by default doesn’t mean that some gung-ho IT department doesn’t strip out all the “non-essential” fonts on its company’s system. Just because Windows, Mac and Linux users can use these fonts doesn’t mean the guy with Opera on his Psion has the same fonts. WebTV has only two – Helvetica and Monaco. As non-standard devices become more common for Web viewing, you can’t assume font installation or window width or any of the common denominators from the world of desktop computers. Making your content readable, accessible and attractive is the main game; getting it into the font you desire is just a bonus.

If you’re worried about font presentation – like I am, or I wouldn’t have spent so much time researching all the variants of Lucida Sans – then you need to remember that not everyone will have your favorite font. Web design should be about flexibility, about presenting information in a range of situations, suitable to a wide range of setups. Specify Verdana by all means, but make sure your content looks good without it, too. And for pity’s sake specify a print stylesheet with some other font. Verdana and Georgia were designed to look good on screen. So they only look good on screen.

— CodeBitch (codebitch@macedition.com) is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch

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