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. What is wrong with the default Ubuntu font set (DejaVu)? I actually had installed the MS core fonts but removed them because I thought they looked worse than DejaVu. For example, some letters (like the ‘k’) used really thin lines with the MS fonts.

    Actually, Mr. Scoble, if you haven’t tried Linux in a while, you may be surprised now… Most distributions used to not enable the bytecode interpreter in FreeType by default (which allows hinting of glyphs), so all the fonts were ugly. I agree with you that this would definitely be an instant turn off for anyone trying Linux for the first time, and actually, that is what turned me away from Fedora originally and a big reason why I went with Ubuntu instead, where it was enabled by default. I think Fedora has it enabled also now.

    Also, Tim Bray was specifically talking about Emacs which uses different (uglier/aliased) fonts and has pretty much nothing to do with Linux in general. You can’t judge an entire OS based on one app.

  2. Jeff, I’d like to see a few side-by-side picture comparisons of Windows, Mac, Linux Gnome, and Linux KDE fonts. Could you point out specifically what’s unreadable/readable about each in a followup?

  3. Jeff, I’d like to see a few side-by-side picture comparisons of Windows, Mac, Linux Gnome, and Linux KDE fonts. Could you point out specifically what’s unreadable/readable about each in a followup?

  4. Hello,

    If you try to use gnome, just change the fonts antialiasing setup and the fonts you use (in two clics that is)…

    I use gnome on my computers and have even better fonts and readability than in Windows or OSX… Linux is about choice. You can choose to have great fonts :)

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

  5. Hello,

    If you try to use gnome, just change the fonts antialiasing setup and the fonts you use (in two clics that is)…

    I use gnome on my computers and have even better fonts and readability than in Windows or OSX… Linux is about choice. You can choose to have great fonts :)

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

  6. I find that Mac beats Linux beats Windows in this area. I think fonts on Windows look terrible, and I’ve used the ClearType tweaking utility before. After using Linux, ClearType just looks blurry with random colors standing out around the edges.

  7. I find that Mac beats Linux beats Windows in this area. I think fonts on Windows look terrible, and I’ve used the ClearType tweaking utility before. After using Linux, ClearType just looks blurry with random colors standing out around the edges.

  8. Fonts are one of the reasons I *like* Linux.

    I used to agree with you, around Red Hat 7 & 8, but now both Fedora and Ubuntu’s fonts look much nicer on my laptop than on Windows.

    Actually, I’m on my work Windows machine right now. I tried switching my default font over to Tahoma, but it looked atrocious (blue lines between ll).

  9. Fonts are one of the reasons I *like* Linux.

    I used to agree with you, around Red Hat 7 & 8, but now both Fedora and Ubuntu’s fonts look much nicer on my laptop than on Windows.

    Actually, I’m on my work Windows machine right now. I tried switching my default font over to Tahoma, but it looked atrocious (blue lines between ll).

  10. Linux faltering due to fonts ONLY is a stretch, but a VERY large part of our perception of the world around us is visual, so I would have to agree that it plays a large part. Installing fonts is pretty painless in most linux distros so I don’t know what the fuss is.

    Linux has bigger problems than fonts though…..

  11. Linux faltering due to fonts ONLY is a stretch, but a VERY large part of our perception of the world around us is visual, so I would have to agree that it plays a large part. Installing fonts is pretty painless in most linux distros so I don’t know what the fuss is.

    Linux has bigger problems than fonts though…..

  12. This may be an outdated post, but i’ve been able to install all the fonts I was able to install on Windows into Ubuntu, so as far as i’m concerned nowadays Linux can handle those type of fonts.

  13. This may be an outdated post, but i’ve been able to install all the fonts I was able to install on Windows into Ubuntu, so as far as i’m concerned nowadays Linux can handle those type of fonts.

  14. Maybe another reason Linux isn’t taking off is that they don’t have any highly paid marketing guys working for them.

  15. Maybe another reason Linux isn’t taking off is that they don’t have any highly paid marketing guys working for them.

  16. Remark #35 is my situation and I spend most of my time in the Ubuntu partition of my oldest computer: “…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.”
    Configurations and hardware can be so different that nobody can simply dismiss another’s complaints as wrong. In fact, I did a complete reinstall of Ubuntu because something borked my font rendering!
    “Best shape” rendering works best for me, and URW Bookman as default (overriding page-specified) is awesome in Firefox.
    I’ve read that Ubuntu Edgy is more attentive to looks. Certainly, a single app/interface that gives one access to every tweak in font rendering would be a BIG help.

  17. Remark #35 is my situation and I spend most of my time in the Ubuntu partition of my oldest computer: “…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.”
    Configurations and hardware can be so different that nobody can simply dismiss another’s complaints as wrong. In fact, I did a complete reinstall of Ubuntu because something borked my font rendering!
    “Best shape” rendering works best for me, and URW Bookman as default (overriding page-specified) is awesome in Firefox.
    I’ve read that Ubuntu Edgy is more attentive to looks. Certainly, a single app/interface that gives one access to every tweak in font rendering would be a BIG help.

  18. And there have been excellent free fonts around for as long as I can remember. Christ, I see GoodDog Cool on billboards these days.

    Even now, with the amount of work required for Unicode fonts, there are still projects like DejaVu, Linux Libertine (http://linuxlibertine.sourceforge.net/), and Gentium (http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&item_id=Gentium). Gentium in particular is just lovely, and I use it as my default in most cases.

  19. And there have been excellent free fonts around for as long as I can remember. Christ, I see GoodDog Cool on billboards these days.

    Even now, with the amount of work required for Unicode fonts, there are still projects like DejaVu, Linux Libertine (http://linuxlibertine.sourceforge.net/), and Gentium (http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&item_id=Gentium). Gentium in particular is just lovely, and I use it as my default in most cases.

  20. 4) BTW those fonts of Windows Vista are still vaporware or at least beta just like the Vista itself.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Windows_Vista_typefaces

    And at least Consolas is such a crap in its beta version that it will probably be such crap also in final Windows Vista:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consolas

    Those idiots at M$ made that font so that it looks good only when ClearType is enabled. What a crap!

    5) We already have many open-sourced but high-quality fonts also for exotic languages:

    http://www.unifont.org/fontguide/

    6) What you say about Matthew Carter is not wrong but quite misleading: The most important parts of his font family called Bitstream Charter has been freely available many years in X Window System, because Bitstream donated them. Those fonts are also as Type 1 font, so they look good with antialiasing and. Some people took them and extended their glyph collection. That new font family based on Charter is called Charis SIL:

    http://scripts.sil.org/CharisSILfont

  21. 4) BTW those fonts of Windows Vista are still vaporware or at least beta just like the Vista itself.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Windows_Vista_typefaces

    And at least Consolas is such a crap in its beta version that it will probably be such crap also in final Windows Vista:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consolas

    Those idiots at M$ made that font so that it looks good only when ClearType is enabled. What a crap!

    5) We already have many open-sourced but high-quality fonts also for exotic languages:

    http://www.unifont.org/fontguide/

    6) What you say about Matthew Carter is not wrong but quite misleading: The most important parts of his font family called Bitstream Charter has been freely available many years in X Window System, because Bitstream donated them. Those fonts are also as Type 1 font, so they look good with antialiasing and. Some people took them and extended their glyph collection. That new font family based on Charter is called Charis SIL:

    http://scripts.sil.org/CharisSILfont

  22. That blog-entry is plain crap. 1) Linux has anti-aliasing and hinting capabilities, already. It has had them for many years. 2) We already have Bitstream Vera -fonts and they are default font in many Linux-ditributions. 3) Some people took those Bitstream Vera -fonts and started to extend them. That project is called DejaVu: http://dejavu.sf.net/ . They are now becoming the default in many Linux-distributions.

  23. That blog-entry is plain crap. 1) Linux has anti-aliasing and hinting capabilities, already. It has had them for many years. 2) We already have Bitstream Vera -fonts and they are default font in many Linux-ditributions. 3) Some people took those Bitstream Vera -fonts and started to extend them. That project is called DejaVu: http://dejavu.sf.net/ . They are now becoming the default in many Linux-distributions.

  24. “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.”

    Well, just to throw some gasoline on the OS war flames :)

    http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

    The june 12 2005 commencement adress of Stanford by Steve Jobs, in which he describes his random choice to take calligraphy classes in college as the reason why the original Macs had proper fonts – and Windows just rips off Macs, so that’s why Windows has proper fonts :)

  25. “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.”

    Well, just to throw some gasoline on the OS war flames :)

    http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

    The june 12 2005 commencement adress of Stanford by Steve Jobs, in which he describes his random choice to take calligraphy classes in college as the reason why the original Macs had proper fonts – and Windows just rips off Macs, so that’s why Windows has proper fonts :)

  26. Its not a Linux issue – its the distro that selects the default fonts for install.
    There are plenty of good fonts in Linux.

    Lazy, lazy blog comments

  27. Its not a Linux issue – its the distro that selects the default fonts for install.
    There are plenty of good fonts in Linux.

    Lazy, lazy blog comments

  28. The Bitstream Vera fonts are actually pretty good. You could see them on the terminal and panels on Ubuntu as the default Monospace and Sans, respectively.

    Problem is, Firefox and OpenOffice on Linux doesn’t default to them.

    Firefox still has Courier, Helvetica, and Times for monospace, sans-serif, and serif (instead of using the system default).

    OpenOffice has the Nimbus font series, which doesn’t look as good as the Bitstream Vera ones. But when you install the msttcorefonts package, they switch to the Microsoft fonts.

    It’s easy to fix these, but it’s unfortunate to know that Linux has some good fonts but they aren’t the default ones.

  29. The Bitstream Vera fonts are actually pretty good. You could see them on the terminal and panels on Ubuntu as the default Monospace and Sans, respectively.

    Problem is, Firefox and OpenOffice on Linux doesn’t default to them.

    Firefox still has Courier, Helvetica, and Times for monospace, sans-serif, and serif (instead of using the system default).

    OpenOffice has the Nimbus font series, which doesn’t look as good as the Bitstream Vera ones. But when you install the msttcorefonts package, they switch to the Microsoft fonts.

    It’s easy to fix these, but it’s unfortunate to know that Linux has some good fonts but they aren’t the default ones.

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