Is it fonts that holds back Linux growth?

Summary:Robert Scoble made an interesting point in his blog yesterday about a key difference between Windows, Mac and Linux - fonts. I agree - money spent on typography is money well spent.

Robert Scoble made an interesting point in his blog yesterday about a key difference between Windows, Mac and Linux - fonts.  

"What keeps me from using Linux? Three things: readability. Fonts. Aesthetics."

It's pretty obvious from looking at Windows fonts that a Despite all the crashes, lockups and flaws present in Windows, people still buy it and use itlot of money has been spent on them.  Looking at Apple fonts it's clear that they spend less money on fonts and font related technologies than Microsoft does, and looking at Linux fonts, well, it's clear that even less money has been spent on the fonts.  No doubt, different eyes see every font differently, but readability is both a complex and expensive field and unless you have the cash to hire the right people who know their way around this topic, you'll be scrabbling in the dark.  Yet the quality of fonts is vital, especially when you consider the hours that people spend looking at screens nowadays.

Now I think that Robert might be onto something here and that he's possibly stumbled onto a way that Linux could gain ground, at least over Apple, if there's someone willing to spend money on the matter.  There's no way that I'm going to suggest that Windows dominance is down purely to the fonts, but I think that in the end most things come down to usability, and usability is something that people are willing to pay for.  I've said this before, but give them a certain level of usability for nothing, and people will make the shift.  The argument that people aren't shifting from Windows to Linux because people don't know about Linux is bogus.  If people can find and download pirated music and movies, they're bound to know that free operating systems exist and where to find them.  The thing that stops people making the leap is uncertainty, and while the open source community is working on removing the uncertainties when it comes to hardware, people will also want an environment that's conducive to work.  Despite all the crashes, lockups and flaws present in Windows, people still buy it and use it.  Maybe all that money they spend on fonts and font technologies is paying off?

However, then Robert goes on to say:

"Geeks don’t think they matter."

I have to disagree with that statement.  I know a lot of "geeks" who spend a lot of money on hardware and when you pay good money for a graphics cards and flat panel screens, that's a sign that you care about how things look.  I switch between Windows XP and Windows Vista on a dual-screen system a lot and I prefer Vista.  In fact, after only a few hours of using Windows Vista (a really early beta at that) I couldn't help but notice what a dinosaur XP looked like by comparison.  The media is constantly debating the pros and cons of switching to Windows Vista over XP.  For me, bigger, clearer icons and better fonts are by themselves all the reason I need to upgrade to Vista (run two panels side by side, each at 1600 x 1200 and you instantly see the usability improvements that Microsoft have made to Vista).

But there's a reason why I don't buy Robert's argument 100%.  Step away from the PC and take a look at the fonts used on other devices and you quickly realize that companies can get away with some pretty appalling fonts on smaller devices.  I've just taken a quick look at the fonts used to display information on my cellphones, GPS receivers, MP3 players, and digital camera, and they all look pretty awful.  Granted, you only glance at these devices and don't sit in front of them for hours, but nonetheless, I'm surprised, and horrified, by how rough they are.  Part of the problem is size.  Manufacturers want to cram as much information onto as small a screen as possible.  But it's not just size.  Even when the font is of a decent size and displayed on an ample screen, many are awful, and appear as though chosen at random or designed on the back of an envelope and forged in a spare hour.  I'd much prefer that my next cellphone or GPS had a little more attention spent on the fonts and a little less spent on logos, packaging and chrome.

Finally though, all this talk of fonts and the font clarity leads me to a final thought - if font smoothness and clarity is so important, why is the paperback such a success?

What's your view on the fonts debate?  What's your take on the Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux font debate?  How important is readability to you?

Topics: Windows

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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