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. Font’s were the exact reason that I stopped using linux, I used to search online few years back to see if anybody complains about them, I even posted screenshot’s of windows and KDE fonts on linux forums asking for a solution(you could imagine how that would have went).

    I am glad atlast there are articles on the web about linux font issues (no disrespect, but they look what we get for $0).

  2. Font’s were the exact reason that I stopped using linux, I used to search online few years back to see if anybody complains about them, I even posted screenshot’s of windows and KDE fonts on linux forums asking for a solution(you could imagine how that would have went).

    I am glad atlast there are articles on the web about linux font issues (no disrespect, but they look what we get for $0).

  3. While I am a big friend of Linux and have been using it for about a decade I was never impressed by the fonts.

    Now, in 2008, I am still not very satisfied – I have a big choice of fonts, included MS TTF fonts, and I can chose to use anti-aliasing or not, varying degrees of hinting etc. But nothing works to my satisfaction!

    With anti-aliasing enabled under Linux, I get dizzy and I find that the fonts look “too thick”. That’s why I always (in the end) turn anti-aliasing off again; result: I get less dizziness but also somewhat “scratchy”, dirty fonts.

    Now if I compare the appearance of a blog or a forum or whatever web site when reading under Linux to doing the same under Windows XP, I must confess (not the slightest doubt about it!):
    The XP fonts with anti-aliasing turned on look SOOO much better and cause considerably less strain on my eyes!

    In the course of the years I found myself more often than before using Windows more – just because of the so much better fonts! This is with a CRT monitor.

    I recently checked out an interesting live CD called goblinx which claims to be a distro dedicated to beauty on the desktop – well, I found the fonts rather blurry and hard on my eyes, while, in fact, on a TFT they really looked nice and didn’t cause so much strain on my eyes.

    Nevertheless, CRT or TFT, I always find fonts better under Windows, better looking and more healthy to my eyes.

    Would love a different result, but sadly this is my honest conclusion.

  4. While I am a big friend of Linux and have been using it for about a decade I was never impressed by the fonts.

    Now, in 2008, I am still not very satisfied – I have a big choice of fonts, included MS TTF fonts, and I can chose to use anti-aliasing or not, varying degrees of hinting etc. But nothing works to my satisfaction!

    With anti-aliasing enabled under Linux, I get dizzy and I find that the fonts look “too thick”. That’s why I always (in the end) turn anti-aliasing off again; result: I get less dizziness but also somewhat “scratchy”, dirty fonts.

    Now if I compare the appearance of a blog or a forum or whatever web site when reading under Linux to doing the same under Windows XP, I must confess (not the slightest doubt about it!):
    The XP fonts with anti-aliasing turned on look SOOO much better and cause considerably less strain on my eyes!

    In the course of the years I found myself more often than before using Windows more – just because of the so much better fonts! This is with a CRT monitor.

    I recently checked out an interesting live CD called goblinx which claims to be a distro dedicated to beauty on the desktop – well, I found the fonts rather blurry and hard on my eyes, while, in fact, on a TFT they really looked nice and didn’t cause so much strain on my eyes.

    Nevertheless, CRT or TFT, I always find fonts better under Windows, better looking and more healthy to my eyes.

    Would love a different result, but sadly this is my honest conclusion.

  5. linux font is so dirty , I have linux on my system and it puts me down. I am sick of using the system. It makes me shut down the system as early as possible.

  6. linux font is so dirty , I have linux on my system and it puts me down. I am sick of using the system. It makes me shut down the system as early as possible.

  7. I’m running Linux Mint 4.0 with Microsoft TrueType fonts installed. Looks better than Windows, which I used for many years before migrating. And they were a breeze to install too.

  8. I’m running Linux Mint 4.0 with Microsoft TrueType fonts installed. Looks better than Windows, which I used for many years before migrating. And they were a breeze to install too.

  9. Who still needs hinting with today’s high resolution displays?
    All you need is a proper display, a font engine (font rasterizer) that does antialiasing and a good font.
    I like it when fonts are represented on-screen like how they’re actually supposed to look. All hinting methods destroy the actual character shapes and screw up the font kerning (more on low quality fonts or with custom hinters of course).

    The solution for “better looking” fonts lies in the display technology. We need higher resolution and PPI (DPI) and that’s all.

    This blog entry is utter junk by the way. :/

    - Bill

  10. Who still needs hinting with today’s high resolution displays?
    All you need is a proper display, a font engine (font rasterizer) that does antialiasing and a good font.
    I like it when fonts are represented on-screen like how they’re actually supposed to look. All hinting methods destroy the actual character shapes and screw up the font kerning (more on low quality fonts or with custom hinters of course).

    The solution for “better looking” fonts lies in the display technology. We need higher resolution and PPI (DPI) and that’s all.

    This blog entry is utter junk by the way. :/

    - Bill

  11. >it’s quite easy to get perfect Mac OS X-like font rendering in Ubuntu/Kubuntu.

    Only if you know nothing about kerning and hinting. And only if you never saw ClearType on a DVI monitor, and Vista’s or .NET 3.0 ClearType in particular.

    Linux will never catch up, unless someone pours *millions* of real $$$ in OSS font and typography.

  12. >it’s quite easy to get perfect Mac OS X-like font rendering in Ubuntu/Kubuntu.

    Only if you know nothing about kerning and hinting. And only if you never saw ClearType on a DVI monitor, and Vista’s or .NET 3.0 ClearType in particular.

    Linux will never catch up, unless someone pours *millions* of real $$$ in OSS font and typography.

  13. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s quite easy to get perfect Mac OS X-like font rendering in Ubuntu/Kubuntu. Just so you know.

  14. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s quite easy to get perfect Mac OS X-like font rendering in Ubuntu/Kubuntu. Just so you know.

  15. 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.

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