Is it fonts that holds back Linux growth?

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.

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TOPICS: Windows
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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?

Topic: Windows

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43 comments
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  • Maybe I'm Blind

    Perhaps I?m blind (or as my wife would say, not very observant) but, in my household, we have 2 Macs, 2 XP machines and 1 Suse box and I have never noticed a difference in displayed fonts. I primarily use Suse but I use all the other machines almost daily depending on where I?m at and what I?m doing.

    That said, printed fonts from our shared printer look much better when printed from the Mac and Windows Machines than they do when printing from Suse.
    30otsix
    • Down to user preference, really.

      I like using Lucida Grande on my Windows XP box for most everything. Mac users are familiar with it -- it's the Mac OS X system font. It's prettier.

      Still...
      A_Pickle
    • The real problem is...

      The real problem is that there's no "visible" Linux culture anywhere.

      Even if the shelves were lined with Linux hardware, the first thing Joe Public would try to do on his new machine would be to try and install one of those pretty boxes of software on it (...and fail!)

      It only takes <b>one</b> failure like that, just <b>one</b> game which won't install, and Joe, and all of Joe's friends, will switch to the thing that "works" for them, ie. Windows.

      This problem isn't going to go away anytime soon, if ever.
      jinko
  • A small thing called - Copyright

    Take a box of say, 8x12 pixels and then design a single letter of a font. If you use the same pixels that Adobe Postscript does, then you are infringing on their copyright. This means that you MUST make some pretty awful fonts (ones that Adobe tried and threw away) - JUST to make them "open source".

    There's only SO many ways to carve up some pixels . . .
    Roger Ramjet
    • Yes and No.

      In other countries (probably a lot of 'em, though I'm not going to go look) fonts are subject to copyright and you're fully correct.

      But in the US, you can't copyright a font. (Here's the legal reference: http://tinyurl.com/r3p3p. It's Title 37 Section 202.1(a) and (e)). In the US you can, however, copyright the series of instructions used to draw the font. So you're fine creating your own exact copy of the Arial font; just don't use their routine to render it. (That applies to scalable fonts since they're "programs". AFAICT you can pretty much just rip off a bitmapped font).
      dave.leigh@...
    • Vector Graphic

      I thought that all scalable fonts were vector graphic and not bit map. So as Apple found out years ago "look and feel" is not copyrightable. So then is it the formula and coding behind the "look and feel"?.
      bigpicture
      • What Apple did about this....

        He's right, fonts cand be copyrighted.

        What Apple did about this was to design a virtual machine (like Java) for font rendering then embed bytecode in the font files to render them.

        Virtual machines are patentable, so Apple managed to patent their font data (in a roundabout way).
        jinko
  • Maybe it's just the defaults

    Windows' default fonts are pretty darned good, I have to hand that to them. They're not mindblowing, but if you keep the defaults you'll always be satisfied. And it seems like every Linux distro I've tried has horrible default fonts. But when I switch them to the Nimbus family of fonts everything looks better than the Windows default. Also I don't know if anti-aliasing is still turned off by default in Linux, but that could be a potential source of the problem as well.

    And for OS X... maybe it's just me but I just don't like any of them.
    Michael Kelly
    • It's probably distro dependent....

      ... the SUSE sans fonts (which are the defaults) seem OK to me and they are anti-aliased too.

      Certainly going from SUSE to Windows.... yuck!!! I'll take SUSE any day.
      bportlock
      • Quite correct, Bportlock

        I'm with you on both points.
        barsteward
  • No - its not....

    "Fonts" is a lame argument for the lack of
    uptake, uptake is increasing all the time. Why
    do people think they are going to change horses
    immediately. There is still a multitude of people
    using Win 95/98/ME/2000 - so whats holding them
    back? I'll tell you, they haven't bought a new PC
    yet. Although there have been boxed versions of
    Win XP on the shelves, they haven't really gone
    out to buy it - because they genereally need to
    buy a new PC to run it and the majority of them
    wouldn't be able install it on their own.
    If 2 people in a crowd use fonts that someone
    else does not like is not a basis for "Is it
    fonts thats holds back Linux growth".
    Now, if every PC presented on the stands had bad
    fonts then maybe you could try this argument. But
    then again, its personal preference as to what
    someone finds easy to read.
    barsteward
  • One factor, seemingly unconsidered...

    ... is that as little as a year ago these discussions about Linux and who uses it or switches to it was limited to "geeky" forums. Two years ago, it was in a obscure corner of Slashdot. But now, the discussion is becoming more mainstream and in more "usual" places.

    To me that says that Linux *is* making an impact and its growth, whilst slow, is occuring.

    Finally, browser stat.s are notorious for the wide versions between sets of stats but any way you slice them, Linux usage (via web browser) has doubled in the last two years and is now comparable with Mac usage.

    It's not taking over the world yet, but there seems to be a steady trend here.
    bportlock
    • Your absolutely correct, but

      As someone who has tried out Linux SUSE for a period of time I can tell you that as good as Linux is (and it is pretty good) it has a ways to go. Time and time again I hear the Linux faction of the ?We Hate Windows? gang go on and on about the virtues of Linux as if it?s a finished product of perfection ready for the general population and it is not. And then there is the real arrogant bunch in the gang who just outright claim that Windows is such garbage that those who cannot cope with Linux are too lame to even own a computer and should get the hell off the internet and make it a better world for them.

      Here it is; why Linux isn?t moving as fast to landing on the consumer desktop as it should be for a good free OS as compared to a $100+ OS that?s in no way perfect.

      1. Linux has to be downloaded, burned and installed. Linux installation isn?t always easy, and there are many neophytes, who couldn?t reformat and reinstall XP on their own and as a result, without more expert help it?s never going to happen for those people. While on its own this is hardly an insurmountable problem, it?s where the problem starts.
      2. Once Linux is installed there are sometimes issues finding drivers for particular pieces of hardware and even when those drivers can be located they sometimes have reduced functionality compared to the XP versions. Once again while this is seldom a killer issue on its own, it?s an added problem.
      3. Once Linux is fully up and running one has to be assured that there are comparable programs available for Linux for every program the user in question needs. This is actually a horrible problem for many people who have a few heavily used programs that are rather unique to Windows and this is sometimes where the first deal breaker comes in. One guy I know asked about Linux burning programs and capabilities and after some investigation decided to pass based on that alone.
      4. If someone is a game player, when they find out what that means with a Linux OS, it also means they are ?OUT? of the Linux OS.
      5. There are a few moderately advanced users who are used to doing a few slightly more complex things with a few clicks in XP and find out that with Linux the complexity level for the same operation now requires ?command lines? and this is not only more complex then they are interested in getting, it?s a pain.
      6. For some people who have been using Windows for quite some time there are things they really like about XP; Messenger, Windows Office, Windows Media Player, and many other things, and dumping Windows for Linux means getting rid of all that and getting used to new programs and functions and a lot of people really like what they already have.
      7. Linux is not particularly media friendly and the question quickly becomes for many people how am I going to play a lot of my media files if Linux doesn?t support them? Deal breaker for many.
      8. The fallback position of many Linux enthusiasts is that XP is so insecure it?s a hazard and a Linux OS solves this problem virtually completely so it?s a good reason to use Linux for that alone. The problem with this branch of the argument is that its rather simple to get free security programs for XP that will automatically update and secure XP so well the vast majority of Windows users experiences no security problems at all. This isn?t wishful thinking, it?s a fact, hundreds of millions use Windows and any wide spread security calamities would have caused chaos long ago. I know countless young computer neophytes using laptops on wireless university networks who haven?t had a significant intrusion in years on XP, the security issue is massively overblown.
      9. All the little things, the little things that mostly experts notice, like poor fonts in Linux.

      I totally understand the outlook of Linux users who know what they are doing and can make Linux sing and have no need for gaming or XP specific programs etc etc, but that?s not the way the rest of the world works. Until Linux can address the above issue its not going anywhere fast anywhere soon.
      Cayble
      • Some clarifications

        [i]"1. Linux has to be downloaded, burned and installed. "[/i]
        No - I bought SUSE in a box. Midrake and Red Hat were next to it on the shelf.

        [i]"2. Once Linux is installed there are sometimes issues finding drivers "[/i]
        Agreed although this is changing. More manufacturers are producing Linux drivers but the improvement has some way to go.

        [i]"3. Once Linux is fully up and running one has to be assured that there are comparable programs available for Linux"[/i]
        Once again it depends what you are doing. For office tasks (Word processing, spreadsheets and email) then it is easy.

        [i]"4. If someone is a game player, when they find out what that means with a Linux OS, it also means they are ?OUT? of the Linux OS."[/i]
        I agree, but many gamers are abandoning PCs for games consoles so it may become less of an issue

        [i]"5. There are a few moderately advanced users ... the same operation now requires ?command lines?"[/i]
        I disagree with this. I do not use Linux command lines. I use GUI tools for everything.

        [i]"6. For some people who have been using Windows for quite some time there are things they really like about XP"[/i]
        Well then - they should stay on XP.

        [i]"7. Linux is not particularly media friendly"[/i]
        It certainly does not support DRM stuff, but other media play just fine.

        [i]"8. The fallback position of many Linux enthusiasts is that XP is so insecure it?s a hazard and a Linux OS solves this problem virtually completely so it?s a good reason to use Linux for that alone"[/i]
        I think I can agree with that one ;-)

        [i]"9. All the little things, the little things that mostly experts notice, like poor fonts in Linux."[/i]
        I can only speak for distros I have used and their font rendering is way, way better than Windows.
        bportlock
      • Oh so Linux should become spaghetti code

        so the Windows neophyte's can run it . get real will you .

        "In a world without walls and fences , who needs windows and gates.'
        Intellihence
  • The real story - not the ZDNet/MS revisionist version

    "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."

    The comment would be tragic on any other source than ZDNet
    but sadly it is to be expected here.

    The TrueType font technology used by MS, Apple, and
    incorporated in X11 (e,g, Xorg and FreeType) was developed by
    Apple. Apple spent a large amount of R&D creating this "font
    related technologies" that was then licensed to MS.

    Apple went on to extend its font technologies with TrueType GX
    (94) which exists as AAT (Apple Advanced Typography) in Mac
    OS X. MS unable too get a license for the advanced TrueType GX
    features partnered with Adobe Systems and developed
    OpenType (inferior to Apple's technology but much wider
    acceptance - hmm where have we heard this before?;-) which
    started shipping 2001 (several years after Apple).

    When people refer to font differences between platform they're
    usually talking about the rendering of documents created with
    the standard MS fonts that ship with windows. Yes these fonts
    are not shipped on the other platforms, however it is
    disingenuous to suggest the other platform fonts are inferior
    when they are different. Rendering of webpages is the most
    obvious example with the dominance of IE for browsing many
    sites are design by the uniformed developer to render
    specifically in this browser using the windows standard fonts.

    Fonts under Linux are a challenge depending on the distribution.
    High quality fonts are not usually free so only the commercial
    Linux distributions (like Novell's SLED) have "polished" out-of-
    the-box font support (i.e. licensed font families, advanced
    featured enabled).

    Give credit where it's due. Good rule of thumb: when any credit
    is to be given to MS for any idea in IT a simple search will show
    the credit usually belongs to someone else:-)
    Richard Flude
    • The real real story

      Yup, MS licensed the original TrueType from Apple when Apple was desperate to get out from under Adobe hegemony.

      However, the work on anti-aliasing and sub pixel rendering or Cleartype was done by MS and Monotype and those advances are used on most of the world's computers. Not to say that Apple didn't also do work, but to try and pretend that the original TrueType Apple fonts are somehow used today and the extensive work MS did on creating fonts, using the hinting engine and spreading their use through 95% of the global computing world is nothing, is just another attempt to rewrite history.

      Great marketing, great design, a Xerox copy OS then an extreme makeover Unix copy OS and their pinnacle, a rebadged MP3 player have led Apple to where they are. Of course, once the world realises that they can play MP3s and watch videos on their phones, are they still going to be carry around their Pod?
      TonyMcS
      • Please

        "However, the work on anti-aliasing and sub pixel rendering or
        Cleartype was done by MS and Monotype and those advances are
        used on most of the world's computers."

        Yes they were, but a relatively small contribution compared to
        Apple's.

        "Not to say that Apple didn't also do work, but to try and
        pretend that the original TrueType Apple fonts are somehow
        used today and the extensive work MS did on creating fonts,
        using the hinting engine and spreading their use through 95% of
        the global computing world is nothing, is just another attempt
        to rewrite history."

        Actually we don't have to pretend, Apple's TrueType technology
        IS the basis of windows font technology today - period.

        MS created some font families that they shipped with windows.
        These fonts got 95% of the market because of the windows
        market penetration not their superior use of Apple's TrueType
        hinting capabilities.

        "Great marketing, great design, a Xerox copy OS then an
        extreme makeover Unix copy OS and their pinnacle, a rebadged
        MP3 player have led Apple to where they are."

        Stands as singularly the most pathetic understanding of Apple's
        contribution to personal computing ever.

        "Of course, once the world realises that they can play MP3s and
        watch videos on their phones, are they still going to be carry
        around their Pod?"

        If only the rest of the world was as smart as you;-)
        Richard Flude
      • More MS Hype

        [i]"However, the work on anti-aliasing and sub pixel rendering or Cleartype was done by MS"[/i]

        Anti-aliasing was developed in the 70's while Microsoft was still flogging the Altair which didn't even have a screen - just a lot of flashing lights.
        bportlock
  • Fonts are the least of the problem

    holding back the growth of Linux. To grow, the platform has to
    get on the radar of Jill & Joe Sixpack and there is no indication
    that that is even happening. I don't see Linux machines in Best
    Buy, FutureShop or any other large scale elctronics retailer. The
    ones that have shown up in the past have been low-ball devices
    out of Walmart. Decent desktop software that is productive
    oriented and entertainment driven needs to be evident and it
    just isn't -- not to the masses anyhow. Currently, only 'those in
    the know' looking for an alternative to the crap offered from
    Redmond are aware of Linux. Most people don't even know what
    a font is. Linux has bigger growth problems and fonts ain't one
    of them.

    Just my 2? worth.

    .
    999ad@...