File Under: CSS, Fonts, Web Services

Typekit Hopes to Become the YouTube of Fonts

A new startup is hoping to solve the web’s font problem.

Designers have been bemoaning the state of typography in the browser since the dawn of the web. The current technology for rendering type in the browser without using Flash or other non-standards-based methods essentially limits designers to only six fonts.Of course, we already have some ways around those limits, like sIFR and Cufn, two projects that use Flash and JavaScript, respectively, to embed fonts on web pages from the server side. However, there’s long been a better way to embed fonts waiting in the wings: using CSS.

The W3C @font-face declaration for CSS has been around for some time, but has languished due to two big problems. First, most browsers didn’t support it. But with the latest versions of Safari, Firefox, Opera and Google Chrome all now supporting @font-face, that problem is close to being solved.

It’s the second major problem that’s the sticking point: licensing restrictions forbid embedding fonts via CSS. Unfortunately, the font foundries which create, sell and license fonts have thus far been reluctant to embrace licensing terms that would allow designers to serve fonts legally. The foundries fear that users would be able to pirate the fonts much more easily if the files were published in the wild on the web.

It’s this problem that Typekit, an as-yet-unlaunched web service, is trying to solve. Typekit is the brainchild of Jeffrey Veen, a noted web designer (and former Wired.com engineer and contributor to Webmonkey) who is hoping that Typekit can strike a deal with the font foundries and provide licenses that will allow designers can use them on the web.

Although Typekit’s official announcement is thin on details, it looks as though the company will host the font files, which designers can then license for a fee. From there, the fonts could simply be embedded using the @font-face declaration in a site’s stylesheets.

Sounds prefect right? Well, maybe. There are some possible problems with Typekit’s scenario.

First, there’s the issue of potential downtime. If Typekit’s servers choke (and even Amazon’s S3 service goes down from time to time, so don’t expect Typekit to be any different) all your fancy fonts vanish. Depending on how complex your design is, an outage could turn your site into a garbled disaster.

The other possible problem is that Typekit will require adding “a line of JavaScript to your markup.” Hopefully what that means is that you’ll need to embed a license checking script. But the announcement isn’t clear about this, and some commenters seem to think it means Typekit is planning to use a font replacement system along the lines of Cufn.

Update: According to Typekit’s Jeffrey Veen, the commenters have it wrong.

“Typekit isn’t using any sort of image replacement for rendering fonts on web pages,” Veen tells Webmonkey. “We’re using the CSS @font-face declaration to link to TrueType and OpenType files. We’re using JavaScript to simplify that process and account for various browser versions.”

Ah, yes, various browser versions. At the back of everyone’s mind is the problem of Internet Explorer — Even the brand new IE8 still does not support the @font-face rule. However, after watching the developments come out of Google’s I/O conference it seems pretty clear that the web is moving forward with or (more likely) without IE.In the meantime, Veen says Typekit is taking special considerations to deal with Internet Explorer.

But over time, using Internet Explorer will result in a second tier web experience, since the browser remains without HTML5 and CSS 3 support. Users will start asking why, and one of two things will happen: either users switch to a different browser or Microsoft adds the missing features. Either way, the web wins.

Assuming @font-face support becomes ubiquitous across all browsers at some point, font foundries and Typekit may well find themselves in the same position that the music and film industries are today — fonts will be embedded using @font-face directly, regardless of copyright laws.

Despite the potential problems and complexities, we welcome the impending arrival of Typekit. If it can work around these outstanding issues, it has a good chance of succeeding. If you’d like to be notified when the service is available, head over to the sign up page and add the blog feed to your RSS reader.

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