Linux’ achilles heel: fonts

I was just reading David Berlind talking about Tim Bray’s use of Linux over the past couple of weeks (he’s going back to the Mac). I know what keeps me on Apple and Microsoft OS’s, though, and it might not be what you expect.

What keeps me from using Linux? Three things: readability. Fonts. Aesthetics.

Geeks don’t think they matter. But at Gnomedex I could always pick the one or two Linux users out of the crowd instantly. Why? Their fonts looked ugly and weren’t as readable.

Maryam’s new Mac’s fonts are blurry compared to Windows too, but they still are a HUGE advance over anything I’ve seen on Linux.

Why is this? Because font designers like Matthew Carter don’t work for free. One typeface might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop. Even millions. Hinting fonts takes a LOT of technology (Microsoft has at least two teams that I know of working on font and reading technologies).

It gets even worse if you’re Chinese or Russian or Japanese (I hear there’s a few people living in those countries). Why? Their font families take longer to develop and are harder to do. When I visited Bill Hill (his team developed ClearType and commissioned most of the fonts you see in Microsoft’s default pack on Windows) he was raving about his team’s work.

Why is this important? Name the #1 thing you look at most on your computer screen. For me it’s the characters on the screen. If one OS has better looking characters than another (Windows Vista has a whole set of new fonts coming) then that OS will win with most users who aren’t geeks.

This is the #1 reason why Linux hasn’t seen any significant adoption on the desktop/laptop yet.

Fix that problem and you’ll see a serious third competitor for everyday consumers.

But the problem is that Matthew Carter (and other typographers like him) don’t do their work for free. That means Apple and Microsoft will win this game.

The best fonts win.

Oh, and Microsoft, you better hold onto Bill Hill. If he goes to Google then I’ll know Google is building an OS.

Bill told me that the guy who decided to invest in fonts on Windows was another Bill. You might have heard of him. I think that decision will turn out to be the smartest “keep Windows important” move Gates ever made.

168 thoughts on “Linux’ achilles heel: fonts

  1. I think it’s significant that the impediment to Linux adoption has devolved to fonts…meaning that installation/configuration has become a no-brainer. I just reinstalled XP (yet again – Registry Rot) and put Kubuntu on two machines and Kubuntu was a smoother install by far.

    Progress, not perfection.

  2. I think it’s significant that the impediment to Linux adoption has devolved to fonts…meaning that installation/configuration has become a no-brainer. I just reinstalled XP (yet again – Registry Rot) and put Kubuntu on two machines and Kubuntu was a smoother install by far.

    Progress, not perfection.

  3. I have managed to download regular fonts onto my Linux. But fonts are not the biggest reason turnoff I think…it’s the lack of wizards that are used on Linux. (I use Fedora 2 and 4 by the way on various comps in the apt.)

  4. I have managed to download regular fonts onto my Linux. But fonts are not the biggest reason turnoff I think…it’s the lack of wizards that are used on Linux. (I use Fedora 2 and 4 by the way on various comps in the apt.)

  5. The issue is not so much Linux as “free” systems. My Linux system is thoroughly equipped with a wide variety of fonts. They were separately licensed. They don’t come for free.

    For free, you get a few decent fonts like the publicly available Microsoft fonts, some fonts donated by Agfa/Monotype, etc. These are easy for a naive person to install. A properly configured Linux system will have acceptable fonts.

    The other factor (and it’s a big one) is that the average Linux distributor lacks graphical and presentation skills. This is something that can be fixed easily, but out of the box presentation varies widely. Only a few are reasonable without extra effort.

  6. The issue is not so much Linux as “free” systems. My Linux system is thoroughly equipped with a wide variety of fonts. They were separately licensed. They don’t come for free.

    For free, you get a few decent fonts like the publicly available Microsoft fonts, some fonts donated by Agfa/Monotype, etc. These are easy for a naive person to install. A properly configured Linux system will have acceptable fonts.

    The other factor (and it’s a big one) is that the average Linux distributor lacks graphical and presentation skills. This is something that can be fixed easily, but out of the box presentation varies widely. Only a few are reasonable without extra effort.

  7. J. I think that’s my retail knowledge coming through. I had people decide on a $3,000 camera purchase based on gut instinct of just picking the product up.

    When you go to Fry’s Linux looks ugly. Sorry, it does. Partly cause it’s always demoed on the cheapest machines (which are ugly in of themselves) but also partly cause of small things like fonts and UI elements.

  8. J. I think that’s my retail knowledge coming through. I had people decide on a $3,000 camera purchase based on gut instinct of just picking the product up.

    When you go to Fry’s Linux looks ugly. Sorry, it does. Partly cause it’s always demoed on the cheapest machines (which are ugly in of themselves) but also partly cause of small things like fonts and UI elements.

  9. R. S.,

    Obviously I’m out of my depth. Still, I, the epitome of an end user, ran Slackware exclusively for 5 years and had no problem with the “look”. The learning curve was a bitch back in the day, but the look wasn’t. I just can’t stand things that don’t work right, i.e., Windows, at least through XP. Still, and upon further reflection, your point is well taken. The most important aspect of marketing anything tends to be its cosmetic appeal. And that’s a shame.

  10. R. S.,

    Obviously I’m out of my depth. Still, I, the epitome of an end user, ran Slackware exclusively for 5 years and had no problem with the “look”. The learning curve was a bitch back in the day, but the look wasn’t. I just can’t stand things that don’t work right, i.e., Windows, at least through XP. Still, and upon further reflection, your point is well taken. The most important aspect of marketing anything tends to be its cosmetic appeal. And that’s a shame.

  11. npodges: this is why most companies don’t let developers run the business. If you think fonts don’t matter than you probably are also someone who runs a command line all day long. Translation: most people aren’t like you. This is why Linux has a miniscule marketshare on the desktop (and also why it dominates on server side, since servers don’t need UI and are run by guys who stare at command lines all day long).

  12. npodges: this is why most companies don’t let developers run the business. If you think fonts don’t matter than you probably are also someone who runs a command line all day long. Translation: most people aren’t like you. This is why Linux has a miniscule marketshare on the desktop (and also why it dominates on server side, since servers don’t need UI and are run by guys who stare at command lines all day long).

  13. J: you’ve gotta be joking. At Fry’s (I was just there) there are tons of Linux systems available. They are the cheapest systems out there. But the salespeople say most people don’t buy them.

    I’ll tell you why I don’t bite: they are ugly. Go into Fry’s and compare the fonts. They look like crap compared to Windows XP and Macintosh machines.

    So, your everyday person who doesn’t understand technology isn’t going to listen to you when you say “this machine rocks.” You simply won’t have any credibility and will sound like a nerdy weirdo.

  14. J: you’ve gotta be joking. At Fry’s (I was just there) there are tons of Linux systems available. They are the cheapest systems out there. But the salespeople say most people don’t buy them.

    I’ll tell you why I don’t bite: they are ugly. Go into Fry’s and compare the fonts. They look like crap compared to Windows XP and Macintosh machines.

    So, your everyday person who doesn’t understand technology isn’t going to listen to you when you say “this machine rocks.” You simply won’t have any credibility and will sound like a nerdy weirdo.

  15. When a Linux flavor comes preinstalled on an affordable box, Linux will take off as a desktop system. Free, stable, secure, and less attractive will trump expensive, unsecure, unstable, and pretty if the former is dumbed-down to the level of the latter.

  16. When a Linux flavor comes preinstalled on an affordable box, Linux will take off as a desktop system. Free, stable, secure, and less attractive will trump expensive, unsecure, unstable, and pretty if the former is dumbed-down to the level of the latter.

  17. from post #2
    … but it might require typing “installing microsoft fonts in ubuntu” into a Google search box.

    Your search – “installing microsoft fonts in ubuntu” – did not match any documents.

    ahem… You were saying ?

  18. from post #2
    … but it might require typing “installing microsoft fonts in ubuntu” into a Google search box.

    Your search – “installing microsoft fonts in ubuntu” – did not match any documents.

    ahem… You were saying ?

  19. I installed the “msttcorefonts” on my Ubuntu distro. It made a big difference… I also applied a couple of the new “C” fonts from Vista. (I like Consolas for fixed-width work).

    Fonts are my biggest gripe with *nix distros, and many websites. I like variations in fonts… it keeps things looking nice.

    But when the default fonts just do not render well enough (blurry, choppy, etc) then they need replacing.

  20. I installed the “msttcorefonts” on my Ubuntu distro. It made a big difference… I also applied a couple of the new “C” fonts from Vista. (I like Consolas for fixed-width work).

    Fonts are my biggest gripe with *nix distros, and many websites. I like variations in fonts… it keeps things looking nice.

    But when the default fonts just do not render well enough (blurry, choppy, etc) then they need replacing.

  21. I’m sorry, but I think you might have pulled this argument out of your ass. Maybe if someone had three computers set up (one Mac, one Windows, one Linux) they would find themselves gravitating towards the one with the nicer fonts, but as far as switching from one OS to another is concerned, I think that very few people would let the quality of the fonts be a factor in that decision.

    The #1 reason why Linux hasn’t seen any significant adoption on the desktop/laptop yet is that very few vendors sell it preinstalled. That’s all. Stop overcomplicating.

  22. I’m sorry, but I think you might have pulled this argument out of your ass. Maybe if someone had three computers set up (one Mac, one Windows, one Linux) they would find themselves gravitating towards the one with the nicer fonts, but as far as switching from one OS to another is concerned, I think that very few people would let the quality of the fonts be a factor in that decision.

    The #1 reason why Linux hasn’t seen any significant adoption on the desktop/laptop yet is that very few vendors sell it preinstalled. That’s all. Stop overcomplicating.

  23. just to agree with others here (yep, I’m being boring) the new Microsoft fonts, particularly in Office 2007 (I’ve not got a beta of Vista yet) are amazing..totally amazing, sure it takes a day or 2 to get use to them, but if anything for my liking will be Vistas trump card it’s going to be asthetics in fonts…they are really that good.

  24. just to agree with others here (yep, I’m being boring) the new Microsoft fonts, particularly in Office 2007 (I’ve not got a beta of Vista yet) are amazing..totally amazing, sure it takes a day or 2 to get use to them, but if anything for my liking will be Vistas trump card it’s going to be asthetics in fonts…they are really that good.

  25. Mac Beach: regarding msttcorefonts, the EULA from the fonts says:

    “You may reproduce and distribute an unlimited number of copies of the SOFTWARE PRODUCT; provided that each copy shall be a true and complete copy, including all copyright and trademark notices, and shall be accompanied by a copy of this EULA.”

    So no, MS cannot “withdraw them from use at any time” :)

    Also, when you said “It was good of Microsoft, in the interest of Web-standard readability to make those fonts available.” note that MS removed them from their website; maybe this was really ‘Embrace, extend and extinguish’?

    Karim: ouch ^^;

    (hey… Linux isn’t the one with worms and viruses ;)

  26. Mac Beach: regarding msttcorefonts, the EULA from the fonts says:

    “You may reproduce and distribute an unlimited number of copies of the SOFTWARE PRODUCT; provided that each copy shall be a true and complete copy, including all copyright and trademark notices, and shall be accompanied by a copy of this EULA.”

    So no, MS cannot “withdraw them from use at any time” :)

    Also, when you said “It was good of Microsoft, in the interest of Web-standard readability to make those fonts available.” note that MS removed them from their website; maybe this was really ‘Embrace, extend and extinguish’?

    Karim: ouch ^^;

    (hey… Linux isn’t the one with worms and viruses ;)

  27. The reason why Linux isn’t more popular is because of the fonts?

    Isn’t that like saying that the reason why an ugly, obese, diseased, ill-tempered, toothless hag with halitosis isn’t more popular is because… she has halitosis? :-)

  28. The reason why Linux isn’t more popular is because of the fonts?

    Isn’t that like saying that the reason why an ugly, obese, diseased, ill-tempered, toothless hag with halitosis isn’t more popular is because… she has halitosis? :-)

  29. Since my machine came with an OEM MS XP license it was trivial to import MS’s fonts.

    Then again, screw the linux desktop, I love the linux console ;)

  30. Since my machine came with an OEM MS XP license it was trivial to import MS’s fonts.

    Then again, screw the linux desktop, I love the linux console ;)

  31. Mac: someone in China might make fonts, but they won’t be as good due to Microsoft’s proprietary hinting technology which is coming out in Vista. Also, fonts are art. Like someone said one typeface can take quite a while to really get right.

  32. Mac: someone in China might make fonts, but they won’t be as good due to Microsoft’s proprietary hinting technology which is coming out in Vista. Also, fonts are art. Like someone said one typeface can take quite a while to really get right.

  33. Mac: Actually I’ve used an $8,000 200dpi monitor and ClearType makes an even bigger difference there. To my eye fonts with ClearType are FAR more readable.

    But, ClearType doesn’t work for about 10% of the population due to how some people perceive color.

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