May 18, 2007

Red Hat releases free replacements for Windows core fonts

Author: Bruce Byfield

Last week, Red Hat announced the release of three Liberation typefaces as free replacements for the Windows core fonts Arial, Courier New, and Times New Roman -- respectively, the leading sans serif, monospaced, and serif fonts in use today.

Available for immediate download, the Liberation fonts are intended to let users share documents between free operating systems and Windows without involuntarily reformatting the documents because the fonts don't match. The Liberation fonts are designed to be metrically equivalent to the Windows core fonts, with each letter occupying the same horizontal space as its equivalent in a proprietary font.

Red Hat has a long history of interest in high-quality fonts that allow interoperability between operating systems. According to Mark Webbink, deputy general counsel and secretary at Red Hat, versions of the Red Hat distribution in the late 1990s included versions of Arial, Courier New, and Times Roman until a third party brought a case against the company for violation of Microsoft's copyrights. The dispute was settled out of court. In 2004, Red Hat announced it was licensing three proprietary fonts from Agfa Monotype that were metrically equivalent to the Windows core fonts: Albany, Cumberland, and Thorndale (the initial letter of each font is the same as the font it was designed to replace). These fonts were distributed on the Extras CD included in the Red Hat commercial box, but "they weren't free and they weren't open, and that was frustrating for us," Webbink says.

The designers

After the release of Albany, Cumberland, and Thorndale, several of the designers and executives with whom Red Hat worked at Agfa Monotype began their own font foundry, called Ascender Corp. Ascender's staff has a long history of font design for major corporations, and its work includes not only the Microsoft core fonts, but also Verdana, Microsoft's best-known font for online use, and such projects as Andale Mono, designed as yet another metrical equivalent for Courier New.

Having worked with members of the Ascender team before, Red Hat chose to work with them again to design a set of free replacements, rather than to use an existing free font like Linux Libertine, which is designed as a metrical equivalent of Times Roman. Before work began, Red Hat provided a set of technical specifications for the project, but left many of the details up to Ascender.

"As long as they matched in metrical terms, did we give them latitude in the design?" Webbink asks rhetorically. "The answer is yes."

Steve Kuhlman, vice president at Ascender, says that the company had never worked on a free font before. Kuhlman says Ascender approached the Liberation project primarily from a design perspective. Steve Matteson, whom Kuhlman describes as "pretty much our main designer," began work on the fonts last year. Kuhlman adds that, although they are designed to fill the same space as the Windows core fonts, the Liberation fonts are "not exact clones. There are definitely design differences."

Webbink declined to give an exact cost of the project, but indicated that it was "hundreds of thousands of dollars.... And frankly, we've been quite pleased with the results. We think it's a very attractive collection of fonts."

The current state of the fonts

The Liberation fonts do not have version numbers, but Webbink says that they are not yet complete. Specifically, hinting is implemented only at sizes from eight to 40 points. At any size below or above this range, the Liberation fonts can be expected to suffer from problems with readability, spacing, color, and consistency of shape in letter forms. However, Webbink expects that the fonts should be fully hinted "by the end of the year."


Liberation Fonts - click to enlarge

Another current limitation is that the fonts include characters only for western, central, and eastern European languages -- that is, for Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets. Webbink indicates that Red Hat would like to see font support eventually extended to Indian, Japanese, and Chinese characters, which, he says, are still weakly supported by free typefaces.

Despite these limitations, one advantage that the Liberation fonts have over those they are intended to replace is that they are the work of one design house. Although the serif, sans serif, and monospaced versions are not identical, you can see by looking at a specimen sheet that the letters in all of them are more similar to each other than the letters in Arial, Courier New, and Times New Roman, which were designed independently of each other. This uniformity should give the Liberation fonts a greater aesthetic appeal when they are combined in a single document. Initially, at least, they should also have the advantage of novelty compared to the greatly overused trio that they are replacing.

Webbink describes the reaction to the typefaces from users as "overwhelmingly positive," adding, "We've had a large number of requests from Windows users to download them." However, some in the typographic community seem disappointed at the lack of complete hinting.

Perhaps the most negative reaction comes from information architect Dan Klyn, who asks, "What would happen if Arial and Verdana hooked up and had a baby? The baby would be very ugly, and its name would be Liberation." Judging from the specimen species he posted, Klyn's main objection is that "the glyphs are too square."

Future plans

While Ascender is completing the hinting and extending the language support for the Liberation typefaces, Webbink says Red Hat will encourage their use. For example, Webbink says, "We'd love to see them available in OpenOffice.org." Another way that the fonts could spread is if the basic designs are extended by the open font community that has sprung up in the last couple of years.

The fonts are currently released under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), with several exceptions. Under the first exception, use of the Liberation fonts specifically does not cause documents to be covered by the same language -- a clause that needs to be specified with fonts both because of how they interact with other software and because in some formats, such as PDF, they are embedded in the document. Other exceptions exclude the right to use Red Hat trademarks with the fonts, specify a lack of warranty and limitation of liability, and make North Carolina, where Red Hat is located, the jurisdiction for any legal disputes.

This license was chosen, Webbink says, because Ascender wished to reserve the right to sell the typefaces to embedded device and printer manufacturers, and the LGPL is the traditional choice for dual licensing. When asked why the Open Font License, an increasingly popular choice among open font designers was not used, Webbink explained that the main reason was that the license was not yet approved by the Open Source Initiative. Once it is approved, Webbink says, the typefaces might be transferred to the Open Font License, "so long as it meets all the details of our agreement with Ascender."

Clearly, Red Hat's donation of the typefaces to the community is not just a matter of money, but also of dealing with a number of minor concerns that will take some time to resolve. "We are thinking of an ongoing effort," Webbink says.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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