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Until early July of 96, in a strange twist of technology, browser companies were busy adding video, audio, animation and smell-o-vision, but in the process they'd overlooked type--the thing that makes up 90% of the web.

While Microsoft has had a <Font Face> tag to display typefaces since V1 of the Internet Explorer, Netscape has only just supported the tag in their B5 of Navigator 3.

The problem--lack of choice

Imagine if the only color you could see on the web was Magenta. Just Magenta. Nothing but Magenta. All the time. Imagine how dull that would be.

Well, that's exactly what you get now on the web when it comes to typefaces. You can display Times. And only Times.

Yes, you can use other typefaces if you turn them into graphics and download them, but this not only slows down web viewing, it's static-the antithesis of the web-and graphic fonts are too large and cumbersome for use as "body text" (the size text you're reading right now). While individuals are free to change the typeface they use to browse the web-only a tiny fraction ever do.

The result is that almost everyone in the world is viewing this text in Times New Roman (or variations called something similar, such as "Times" or "Times Roman."). While Times is a workmanlike font, designed for newspapers, it was never designed for the low-res screens it's currently being viewed upon, nor does it have any personality as a typeface. The Microsoft TrueType version of Times New Roman involved more man-hours of optimized for screen viewing than any other font on the planet. Even so, man does not live by Times alone. Neither do women.

The problem is even worse on the Mac-not only are readers stuck with the same boring typeface, they're stuck with one that's far less readable than the Windows version. The Mac's standard screen resolution of 72 dpi (compared with 96 dpi for Windows), along with the Mac's use of bitmapped screen fonts that have no true italics make extended web reading a real chore. Don't blame me (or other writers) for using italics too freely-italics are an excellent way to emphasize certain words to enhance tone and comprehension-blame your screen font for making them so unreadable.

Web designers aren't happy because they have less control than they should over the look and feel of a page. (But since many designers waited to start designing for the web, claiming it was "undesignable," they, too, were part of the problem-now they act like they own it).

Businesses (or anyone wanting to create a presence on the web) are being cheated of the ability to create a stronger visual "brand" on the web. (But most business people know so little about type they have absolutely no idea much less understanding of the persuasive power of type then they could have done more, sooner, to make this a priority).

Why it took so long to have
a choice of fonts

As fast as the web was moving, support for real typefaces on the web were at a standstill. It was clear that the web had been created by programmers, because they didn't seem to know what a typeface was, they were so used to working in monospaced source code.

The problem was exacerbated (no, that's not a dirty word, Newt) by the fact that most people are oblivious to type. They don't consciously notice it-even though it is constantly affecting them subliminally. But if people don't know that type exists, they can't notice that a choice of typefaces is conspicuously missing from the web, and they won't complain to their browser companies so it does not become a priority..

When I started to lament this situation, no one at Netscape even seemed to know what a font was or why it was important. The web was revolutionary not only in the way it distributed information, but in the fact that it was the only text-based medium where designers and authors had no control over how the text looked.

Browser companies have been so busy trying to keep up with each other that they've focused on adding flash, often at the expense of practicality. Audio, video, animation and other multimedia bits that would thrill the MTV generation have been deemed more important than improved support for text.

Yet reading is what most web surfers do-a vast majority (roughly 90%) of the web consists of text. The limited bandwidth available to most users which makes much audio (and almost all video) impractical doesn't seem to matter-if the fonts can't sing or dance the browser programmers aren't much interested.

The lack of control over type not only causes readability problems (such as lines of text stretching from one side of the screen to the other), but also causes the text to lose the depth of visual and emotional range that type provides.

Type Tech History

Free fonts for web viewing

WebFonts Home

Copyright 1996 Daniel Will-Harris, www.will-harris.com