August 28, 2006

Linux Libertine Open Fonts offers free Times Roman alternative

Author: Bruce Byfield

Philipp H. Poll started the Linux Libertine Open Fonts project in September 2003 because of his dissatisfaction with the fonts shipped with GNU/Linux distributions. "In SUSE 9.x," he recalls, "you had to use a script to download the Microsoft core fonts if you wanted to have good TrueType fonts." To improve the situation, Poll chose to start with the basics with Linux Libertine, an alternative to Time Roman and Times New Roman, the most commonly used typefaces in computing, and to develop it using free software methodologies and tools under the GNU General Public License.

Today, the project has about 10 active contributors working on bug reports, Unicode support, and a port to LaTex. However, unlike other free font projects such as Gentium, the design of Linux Libertine remains the work of one contributor -- Poll himself. "Designing is hardly a collaboratory work," he explains. "Besides, most interested people lack the specialized knowledge for font design."

Poll designs in FontForge (formerly PfaEdit), the leading free font editor. He finds that FontForge has some disadvantages, including using PostScript rather than TrueType geometry, and not supporting hinting (the adjustments made to the letter forms when a typeface is rasterized) in exports to the TrueType format, but considers it adequate for his purposes. Moreover, "when I discover problems with FontForge, I can contact the author," he says, in an exchange of ideas that he cites as an example of teamwork between related free software projects.


Linux Libertine & Times Typefaces -- click to enlarge

Although Linux Libertine is meant as a substitute for Times Roman and its online cousin, Times New Roman, Poll emphasizes that it is more than just a copy of either. Times, he explains, was originally designed for newspaper columns, and "has black and exaggerated forms for better readability at even small point sizes." Times New Roman is even more specialized, being designed for screen display, with simplified letter forms that Poll describes as "inorganic and monotonic."

By contrast, Linux Libertine is designed as a general-purpose print font. "A variety of fonts like DejaVu already exist for use on screen and as system fonts," Poll says. "But open source fonts for printed media are rare." The result is a typeface whose characters occupy almost exactly the same space as Times and Times New Roman, but are full of small differences. The most obvious of these differences are the serifs (the small forms at the end of strokes in letter forms), which are more bowed than those of either of its predecessors, and are flatter and less angular than Times' and thinner and more varied than Time New Roman's. In addition, some of the curved letter forms, such as the bottom of the lower case "e" and "c," are shorter than in the two Times variants. These small changes add up to a typeface that, while somewhat less suitable than Times New Roman for screen displays and slightly lighter in color than Times, is highly suitable for a variety of different print jobs.

"I see Times New Roman as a typical example of our industrialized world," Poll says. "It is like an important agricultural plant that has been mutated in a gene tech laboratory and is now found in a monoculture." By contrast, he describes Linux Libertine as "our contribution to organic farming" -- in other words, as more visually interesting and with more character, while serving much the same need for an all-purpose font.

Currently, Linux Libertine consists of more than 1,750 glyphs for Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets and their derivatives, including ligatures and kerning tables. Some work remains to be done on the italics, but the roman or ordinary weight is complete, as well as the bold and underlined weights. A set of small caps is in development, and a grotesque or sans serif font (one without serifs) is planned, but not yet available.

"At present, I'm not thinking about adding other important code pages like Arabic or Chinese and Japanese," Poll says, "because I lack the needed cultural background. This [work] should be done by people who know what is special for their typography."

Linux Libertine is packaged for a variety of distributions, including SUSE, Debian, and Fedora. In addition, both TrueType fonts and source code are available from the site. It represents a reliable, general-purpose typeface of a sort that would otherwise be missing from the small but rapidly growing list of quality free fonts.