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An Interview with Bill McCoy
Adobe's Director of Core Technologies

With the recent Microsoft/Adobe announcement, the game has changed. Both Microsoft and Adobe are saying this new announcement superscedes their previous announcements.

Even so, the "Compressed Font Format" (CFF--now called "Type1c") that Adobe developed for Acrobat and the web, will at least be used in Acrobat 3 if it doesn’t also become a part of OpenType. So it’s important to know more about the new format.

But I recently spoke with Bill McCoy, Adobe's Director of Core Technologies to discuss the new format.

Since Adobe is perhaps the largest vendor of digital typefaces, it makes sense that they're eager to see real typefaces available on the web.

The new format will make it's appearance in the next release of Amber, the new version of Acrobat. Fonts will be embedded into Amber files using a new version of the Distiller which should enter beta in the near future.

DWH: Why has Adobe created a new font format?

BM: First, It would be more accurate to call it a compressed font container rather than a new font format. We are just providing a way to package glyph sets and encoding.

The main benefit of our compressed font container is that it's smaller than other formats, including the subset TrueType fonts Microsoft is proposing [dwh: these are basically normal TrueType fonts with character sets reduced to contain only the characters used rather than the normal 255 characters]. We wanted to provide web fonts that worked well with today's slow modems.

Type One fonts start out almost half the size of TT to begin with, (TT includes a program while T1 just describes character shapes and hinting). Our new compression gives us another compression of 4X over TT. A TT subset of half of Helvetica might be 20K, in our new format the same might be just 5K.

Because Type One fonts are already compressed, we had to pull some tricks to get another factor of 2 out of that. We also have technology for auto-generating hints on the fly, so we could further optimize file size if we decided to remove hints. But for now our format is lossless and contains the original hints, because our customers have told us that quality is important.

DWH: So this new container has a 4:1 compression over TrueType. What is the compression compared with standard Type One fonts?

BM: CFF vs. Type One is approximately 2:1. This scales linearly with the number of characters used.

DWH: Will your new format support TrueType as well as Type One fonts?

BM: We don't want to start a font war. You can start with a TT font and turn it into our web font format. We will provide translation software. Want a universal format that meets the needs of everyone.

DWH: Is it true that this new system will also be more universal in that it will support 2-byte encoding for full language independence.

BM: Yes!

DWH: I know the first appearance of this technology will be in Amber/Acrobat. But Adobe has also announced that it will work with Netscape to make this format part of the HTML standard. How will that work?

BM: The first step is through Acrobat. As for HTML, fonts will be served from regular a HTTP server. You'll reference them like a GIF image. We expect Netscape's browser to support the new format later this. We're not ready for that detailed discussion of exactly how it will work.

DWH: How will designers put existing fonts into this new container?

BM: Then we expect to make some kind of stand-alone translation tool available. It might even be available on our web site. The specifics of distribution and pricing haven't been set but we learned with Acrobat that if you want to make something into a standard you don't charge for it.

DWH: What about protecting the fonts? The current version of Acrobat doesn't handle this very well-if you open an Acrobat file with embedded fonts those fonts become available to the entire system as long as that file is open.

BM: With the new system fonts aren't be available to other apps-because we're using an embedded rasterizer rather than system-wide ATM-so fonts are never installed into the system.

We're saying that "trying to protect font intellectual property by limiting the distribution of electronic documents isn't the way to go." If you own a font and you decide you want to put up a PDF for that font, it is up to us to ensure that the font is safe and it isn't easy for a user to circumvent it unwittingly.

DWH: What about font vendors who don't want their fonts embedded no matter what?

BM: It's up to typeface vendor to decide about legality. TrueType has "embedding" bits that tell the system if they can be embedded or not and I believe we will abide by them.

As for Adobe's own type library, we've chosen to say it's OK to embed fonts for viewing and printing That's just the way it's going to go. Some vendors may want to charge for viewing and printing but that's not sustainable technology.

DWH: Will the new format support multi-byte encoding for non-Latin languages?

BM: Yes.

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Copyright 1996 Daniel Will-Harris,