You can't always get what you font

Good GUIs alone aren't enough to help Linux succeed on the desktop.

In the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to swipe at the folks from Microsoft a bit, and gosh knows they deserve it. But in the interest of fairness, it's important to note that there are still certain areas in which Linux and other Unix alternatives take a distant back seat to Windows and Mac OS.

While I continue to be amazed at the progress both GNOME and KDE have made, the Linux desktop still contains some major weaknesses. Most commentaries on Linux as a desktop operating system complain that Linux won't really be a factor on the desktop until it corrects [fill in pet Linux desktop peeve here].


As someone who's been using Linux as my primary workstation OS since the days of Caldera Network Desktop 1.0 (circa 1995) and its Looking Glass GUI, I don't just have one Linux desktop frustration; I have a list. At the top of that list is the ghastly manner in which Linux systems implement fonts.

Rather than have one central place from which all applications fetch their fonts, we have a situation in which every application implements fonts in its own way: the X Window System has its way, word processors want it a different way, printing systems want it another way, and so on.

Lately I've explored ways to install non-standard fonts that could be used by my system's X server, TeX, and by Ghostscript and other applications. Take it from me, it's not easy.

For starters, there are so many different font formats. Those in the PC and Mac worlds who think that choosing between TrueType and PostScript Type 1 fonts is too much of a headache would suffer repeated migraines from X Windows. Speedo and PCF formats, pretty well unknown outside X, mingle with the TrueType and Type 1 fonts under the /usr/X11R6/lib/X11/fonts/ directory. And the installation procedure for new fonts is limited to the technically-inclined.

Then there's the popular TeX typesetting system, which includes its own format called Metafont. Now, while Metafont is an absolutely stunning tool that allows for font scaling and hinting even better than conventional PC fonts, it's downright obscure outside of TeX circles. TeX can use Type 1 fonts, but the procedure is clumsy.

The TeX installation found on most Linux systems brings a whole pile of fonts with it--Metafont and others--into its own private hierarchy directories. And since TeX still runs under DOS, where it's considered important to keep file names to the DOS 8.3 limits, TeX uses naming conventions different from any other Linux application.

Then there's my StarOffice installation, which puts its accompanying fonts in an entirely different location. WordPerfect Office not only puts its fonts somewhere else, it installs its own private font server. Starting to get the picture?

To a certain extent, this is a standards issue. Nobody has specified where fonts go on a Linux system, so they end up everywhere. I spoke to Dan Quinlan from the Linux Standard Base group and he said that he'd love for someone to step forward and coordinate efforts to bring some sanity to the system.

But standards are barely half the battle. Vendors need to improve installation methods. Default settings should be good enough that we shouldn't need a Linux HOWTO document on "Font Deuglification." The Linux desktop should be "deuglified" from the start.

We need to capitalize on the strengths of Linux's font implementation (such as the powerful features of using font servers in networked environments) while doing an overhaul of the default installation and providing standards for file locations and third-party application behavior.

While I make no pretence that an acceptable solution will be easy to find, this is a problem that absolutely needs to be solved. Yes, I know that GUIs aren't for everyone, but they are useful to many and clumsy font handling is a serious impediment to mainstream acceptance of the Linux desktop. While recent improvements such as anti-aliasing support in the latest version of XFree86 are significant steps forward, the path ahead is still long.

Do you think current Linux font handling is adequate? Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at