Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Why WebFonts matter

I want to share a font that changed my life.

This is a paragraph from this page on Malayalam Wikipedia. The article is about Simone de Beauvoir. (You could tell, right?)

I listen in on the web design community. It’s often very interesting, but can be a little bit narrow. When WebFonts first came out, the discussions were about type foundries and putting DRM on type and how WebFonts would never work because of the lack of copy protection.

And, yes, typography designers will now have to work out what their business models are. They may follow the music industry and try to sue everyone into oblivion. Because that has worked real well.

But that doesn’t matter. The Web as universal archive is so much more important than whether or not existing industries can continue making money. Napster may have pissed off the music industry, but it helped build an enormous library of human creativity.

Designers look at the web and see that it needs civilizing, it needs design. It needs beauty. It’s been designed–if you dare use that word–by philistine programmers who spend fourteen hours a day staring at white text against a black background in some godforsaken text editor like Emacs or Vim. They never went to art school and they prefer reading Perl manuals to reading Keats. They probably use Android, not iOS.

They are right (although I did briefly go to art school). The web is ugly. And WebFonts might not help. The type foundries may or may not jump on to WebFonts. The DRM schemes may or may not happen. And it doesn’t matter.

The reason WebFonts is vitally important is because of the key role of typography. Typography is to make things readable. And they currently aren’t for hundreds of millions of people around the world because there are many, many languages that don’t have fonts. There are 35.9 million people who speak Malyalam. Up until recently, they couldn’t use the web in their own language. At the end of the fiscal year 2010, Apple had sold 73.5 million iPhones.

Malayalam fonts and input methods means Malayalam now has a blogging community, it now has a vibrant Wikipedia and Wikisource. The Malayalam Wikipedia community have been distributing Wikipedia and Wikisource on CD to schools in India: WebFonts means that the CD they distribute need only contain HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which means that it can work on any computer that has a web browser on it.

What’s more important to the world: that smartphone users in the West have a “beautiful user experience” with pretty typography, or that the “rest of the world” as we so frequently call them can actually read and write on the Web? How you answer that question will tell you how important WebFonts will be for you. For me, everyone being able to have the chance to participate in the World Wide Web is far more important than making sure the privileged few have a more magical user experience.

WebFonts are important because language requires type, and access to one’s own language is about as profound a social justice issue as you can find. As the early Wittgenstein said, the limits of my language are the limits of my world. If you can’t type or read your language online, your world is not part of the World Wide Web. That needs fixing.