For those who make typefaces, there haven't been many changes since the invention of the printing press: hot lead, electronic typesetting, desktop publishing.
But now, more than 15 years after its invention, the World Wide Web is finally becoming the next frontier.
The steadily gaining influence of the medium and a new technology for distributing fonts to browsers has led one of the biggest names in typography to embrace the Web in earnest. On Tuesday, Monotype Imaging will open a catalog of nearly 8,000 of its fonts, with more to come, for use on Web pages.
Monotype Imaging's Web font service drew 15,000 users in beta testing with a smaller set of 2,200 fonts, but now it's launching for mainstream use.
When it comes to typography on the Web, "that world has been stunted," Monotype Imaging Chief Executive Doug Shaw said in an interview. "We look at it as a very important evolution in adapting typefaces to this new world."
Well, not new exactly, but new to the font industry. To date, most Web designers have relied on a strained combination of:
A few "Web-safe" fonts such as Verdana and Arial that can be expected to be installed on most computers.
Text rendered in graphics formats such as JPEG.
Adobe Systems' Flash Player plug-in that offers polish but that's somewhat isolated from the rest of a Web page.
The arrival of Web fonts is an important milestone in the development of electronic media. The future of reading is text on screens--whether a book on a Kindle, a magazine on an iPad, or a news app on a mobile phone. Bringing that era to browsers is essential to making the Web as polished as other electronic media and as the print publications it's often supplanting.
Making the case for Web fonts
Monotype Imaging is betting that businesses will see Web fonts as worth the new expense to their Web budgets. There are several potential reasons.
First and foremost is branding. Companies often embrace a particular look to distinguish themselves, and fonts are part of that appearance. Big-name companies spend millions of dollars maintaining their brand, said Chris Roberts, vice president of marketing for Monotype Imaging.
Flexibility also is important: scalable typefaces can be expanded or shrunk gracefully to fit different screen sizes and resolutions, and with everything from the iPhone 4's retina display to big-screen TVs surfing the Web, that's important.
Another reason is search engine optimization: writing the company logo in prominent text at the top of the Web page rather than as a machine-unreadable graphic helps search engines zero in on what's important.
Finally, there's design. Today's hodgepodge of font technologies aren't easy to use--for example, a designer might need slice a logo and background images into graphics pieces that are then reassembled on a variety of browsers. Web fonts will be easier to handle, Roberts asserts.
Of course, a new era of design also opens the door for a new era of ugliness as designers throw off their Web-safe shackles and embrace a profusion of Web fonts. Expect some eye-jarring sites as Web font support spreads across browsers and designers try it out.
"It's early days. People are going to try stuff, and it's not always going to work," Roberts said. The same concerns about taste were raised when the desktop publishing revolution brought design to a much broader audience, he said. "When people start using a new tool, they fumble with it, then they become more adept at it."
Shift to subscription payments
Interestingly for an industry accustomed to perpetually licensing typefaces for a flat fee, Monotype Imaging's new service and others from typeface competitors, including TypeKit and Extensis' WebInk, are subscriptions.
Monotype Imaging's customers using the fonts on their Web sites will pay monthly on a sliding scale depending on how many page views their sites deliver to browsers.
For example, the standard subscription plans start at $10 month for up to 250,000 monthly page views, and the professional plans start at $100 per month for up to 2.5 million page views, Roberts said.
And in an option sure to please budding design-school bloggers, there's also a free plan for Web sites with fewer than 25,000 page views per month. The free plan permits access to the 2,200 fonts that were in the trial program. The paid plans offer access to the full catalog. The professional plans also permit customers to download the fonts to their own machines for better integration into design software and a better ability to present mock-ups to clients.
Is this the business model of the future for the typeface industry, with customers paying monthly as long as they have a Web site? Shaw thinks so.
"I hope subscriptions are right answer. It gives us a recurring revenue stream," Shaw said.
But these are early days for the Web font transition, with course corrections to come as needed: "We're going to be flexible and listen to our customers. This could this evolve to a different model, maybe paid-up," he said, meaning that customers would make a one-time payment rather than recurring payments.
Why Web fonts are happening now
Roberts has one word for why the transition to Web fonts finally is happening now: "Mozilla."
The maker of Firefox, the second most widely used browser on the Net, embraced first a technology called @font-face, part of the Cascading Style Sheets specification for Web page formatting, and then began a partnership with font makers to develop the new Web Open Font Format (WOFF), which is now standardized by the World Wide Web Consortium as a way to package and deliver fonts to browsers.
"As soon as Mozilla released the nightlies [the developer builds of Firefox built and released once a day] and we started to see @font-face supported, we started to work on this," Roberts said.
The @font-face technology lets Web developers easily specify fonts for particular uses--a particular one for headlines, another for body copy, for example--and send fonts to browsers along with graphics, text, and other Web page elements.
There are other ways to package those fonts, but, Roberts said, "we think WOFF is a much better format than any of the others."
An earlier proposal from Microsoft called EOT (Embedded OpenType) had some potential but failed due to its initially proprietary nature and eventual political problems. WOFF has some of EOT's advantages, "but in a format everyone buys into. It makes deployment less complicated" for Web developers and font makers.
In addition, WOFF obfuscates the underlying font files, reducing the ease by which people can copy and use typefaces without proper licensing.
"Almost everything you do to obfuscate, hide, or encrypt something can be undone," Roberts said, but typeface makers have to reckon with a certain amount of copying. "It's a fool's errand to try to make dishonest people honest," he said.
Although Monotype Imaging prefers WOFF, it also supports other technology. Its Web service delivers fonts to five browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 or later, Firefox 3.5 or later, Google Chrome 4.0 or later, Apple Safari 3.1 or later, and Opera 10.10 or later.
That's all five of the top browsers--for desktop and laptops. Mobile devices are another matter, given their constrained bandwidth and processing power. One particular complication are Apple iOS devices, which use a technology called SVG fonts rather than WOFF. The Monotype Imaging service supports them, but it adds more complexity for Web developers.
Another factor in the Web font equation is page-load speed. Studies show that people abandon slow-loading Web sites, and fonts--especially Asian typefaces with hundreds of characters--can be big files to download.
But font downloads can be offset by a reduced graphics burden, and developers will have to strike their own balance. "I will be the first to say not every situation are Web fonts the answer," Roberts said.
Monotype Imaging hopes to ease the pain with a dynamic subsetting technology it's trying to patent in which only those characters used on a Web page are downloaded. If somebody types a comment that needs more characters, they're sent as needed.
The last part of the Web font equation is availability. All of Monotype Imaging's new fonts--and the company creates about 200 a year under its Monotype, Linotype, and ITC brands--will be added to the Web font collection. The company also will work with others whose fonts it sells to include theirs in the collection.
"It's my mission to bring them all over," Roberts said.