Type For Rent

Soon after the use of the internet exploded, everyone realised that all organisations needed both a representation in the 'concrete' world of print as well as one in the superfluous digital universe of the internet.

Text - and therefore typefaces - play an important role in both. Attempts to create publishing software that would produce simultaneously a version for print as well as one for the internet have all failed. The two media appeared to be much more different than most of us assumed at first glance. In fact, a lot of organisations and graphic designers are still struggling with that fact. Many websites are still effectively based on concepts for print production. The switch in people's minds works much slower than the switch in available technology. To be sure, the internet will always integrate print options, like pdf files. The desire for print will not go away entirely, just as vitamine pills will not replace the need for getting your vitamines by eating food.


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The fundamental difference between print and the internet also resulted in a different commercial role typefaces play in each medium. The digital production for print has led to an explosion of available typefaces and transformed every computer owner into a font licensee. The amount of fonts on the market today is no longer countable and thousands of new fonts are added daily. (This counts particularly for the Latin script). For print, the choice is overflowing, the market offers multiple products for every imaginable typographic desire. And there are no longer problems in a technological sense. The two monopolists Adobe and Microsoft have set the industry standard that is followed by everyone on the planet. There is a lot of font piracy around, but font vendors and foundries are happy with a sort of licence per workstation ratio. Small as well as big organisations (that cannot expose themselves with font piracy) have find a way to deal with these matters to everyone's satisfaction it seems. For a long time, there has been opposition against font embedding in pdf files but the opposition has withered away because at some stage the resistance became somewhat pointless. Further technological font development for print, particularly for the Latin script, is starting to get somewhat peripheral.

Maybe that is why the community living directly or indirectly of font production is trying to create a hype around fonts for the web; so called webfonts, which are supposedly different from printfonts. Well, the major difference is in the way the fonts will be sold, the rest is more sales talk or commercial motivated modifications. The handicap with selling fonts for the web is that there is no workstation sales ratio, so an individual and a huge organisation pay the same price for the use a font, although the exposure of both users can be unimaginably big. That fact has left font vendors, type designers and font foundries in distress. It was the reason nobody dealing with fonts was interested in the web and all typefaces used for this medium were basically the fonts found in every system font folder. Resistance against font embedding for web use has also been successful because the web standards are set by a 'public' consortium and not by software giants. The democratic way of reaching a consensus about industry standards is a bit like the way any democratic institution, such as the European Union or the US Senate, reaches a consensus. One needs an expert to explain and handle the results.

So, specifying a font for a website can easily become a tedious business. For people of my generation it comes pretty close to a slapstick operation. Composing complex font stacks, for instance, as method of specifying a font has something irresistibly comical. However, it is interesting to see that privat enterprises are now trying to create a service that makes the extremely complicated web world of ever changing standards, evolving browser's and system softwares and an alphabet soup of different font formats again easy aplicable for a web designer who simply wants to specify a font for a website. The new business model is that, for a yearly fee, you rent a font to be used on a website. This way, a distinction can again be made between a small user of a font and a big one, because the traffic on the site where the font is used determines the level of the rent. So everybody is happy again. Well, maybe not. Mostly because this font renting business runs against the principle of the web consortium that tries to set standards everybody can work with, while this business effectively exploits the bizarrely complicated standards making process of the Web Consortium.

The complex history of digital font technology follows the history of font licensing. The complexity is founded in complex business wheelings and dealings. The internet has created a souk the size of the planet with hundreds of millions of stalls in it. To allow everybody to have access to each individual digital stall, a set of global industry standards is required. The easiest way to establish these standards is by allowing monopolies to dominate the market. There will never be a bigger market than the global internet, so the rewards of internet monopolies are huge. All other ways to create industry standards will be cumbersome but unavoidable because monopolies are illegal.Yet, the current standards on the web are in fact determined by a few (American) companies. As we move into the direction of 'clout computing' we are more likely to subscribe to the use of software than to purchase it. Nevertheless, I wonder if fonts for rent will ever be an attractive proposition for the renter.

Edo Smitshuijzen

Stand-up about specifying fonts for the web

An authority on web standards