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Ask the Web Designer: Why Can't I Use Any Font I Want in My Web Designs?

The short answer is that you can.

The slightly longer answer is that you can’t, at least not in any meaningful way yet.

The long answer is that the ability to download fonts has actually been a part of the CSS standard (the language used to create Web designs) for over 10 years. The snag comes with what font formats a given browser supports.

[NOTE: You may want to stop reading now, as the rest of this explanation might make your eyes bleed in frustration.] 

Images have, obviously, been easy to download almost since the conception of the Web. Although we primarily use GIF, JPEG, and PNG formats, many browsers support EPS, TIFF, and BMP. So if images are so easy to download, what’s the hang-up with fonts?

The most common digital font file formats in use today are True Type (.ttf) and Open Type (.otf), and if you look at your font catalogue, it’s likely that most of your fonts are in one of these formats, with some possibly in Post Script. However, these formats lack Digital Rights Management (DRM) meaning that anyone can use them and share them whether they paid for the font or not. Primarily for this reason, the browser manufacturers have not supported them. 

As an alternative, Microsoft has supported the Embedded Open Type format (.eot) for over 10 years, but no one uses it, partially because it required that you go through a difficult ordeal to convert existing fonts to the new format, but mostly because no other browsers could support it.

And that’s where Web Typography has been stalled for the last decade—you can download fonts, but nobody supports the common font formats.

Some Movement?

Then last year, Apple announced that Safari 3.1 would support both TTF and OTF fonts. I’ve tested downloadable fonts out on some of my own sites, ( using CSS to make sure there were back up font-families. Now, both Opera and Firefox plan to follow Safari’s example. Great! Web fonts for everybody! Typography will blossom! The future is now! 

Oh, but wait. What about the other 75% of the browser market?

It is highly unlikely that Microsoft will ever agree to implement OTF and/or TTF formats in Internet Explorer. Why? What possible reason could they have for holding back the flood gates of decent Web typography?

Microsoft waves the flag of intellectual property, arguing that without proper safe-guards people will just go around stealing fonts as they please. Proponents of using common font formats like TTF and OTF, however, counter-argue that it’s no different than downloading images, and that, yes, some people may use fonts illegally, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. So, no fonts for you!

Other Solutions?

A few stop-gap solutions have been developed over the years, mostly using Adobe Flash to replace HTML text on the fly such as swfIR. Although effective, these kludges are generally slow, difficult to implement, and have had SEO problems.

Recently, Jeffery Veen announced a new product that promises to cut the clutter out of downloadable fonts by introducing a new product called TypeKit, which promises to: both free and commercial fonts in a way that is incredibly fast, smooths out differences in how browsers handle type, and offers the level of protection that type designers need without resorting to annoying and ineffective DRM.

Right now, though, there’s not a lot of there there, so until we get more details on the solution, we can’t really tell if it’s going to be all of that and a bag of chips.

Is that a Light at the End of the Tunnel or Just a Train?

And now, just in the last few days, Chris Lilley and Bert Bos of the W3C have started a new Working Group expressly to address the issues of Web fonts, separate from the CSS Working Group. 

How are they different? The Fonts Working Group mission is to:

…allow wider use of fonts on the Web by identifying a font format that can be supported by all user agents, balancing font vendor concerns with the needs of authors and users and the simplicity of implementation.

Basically they want to find a new "wrapper" for fonts that will include some form of digital rights management.

But if we learned anything from the music industry it’s that DRM doesn’t work very well. Even the Apple iTunes store has dropped it from new purchases.

The debate is raging as you read this over the future of typography on the Web. If you want to enter the fray yourself, subscribe to the W3C Web Fonts Public mailing list ( if you dare.

Next Week: Who can say? You have to ask me something first.

Who is Jason? What is his true agenda? Why can’t he eat bananas? Find out at Bright Eye Media, or still better, just buy his book on CSS for Web Designers Speaking In Styles. It’s all in there.