File Under: Browsers, Fonts, Web Standards

Mozilla Throws Its Weight Behind Improving Web Type, Adopts WOFF for Firefox

Firefox users will soon gain the ability to see an even greater diversity of fonts on web pages.

Mozilla announced Tuesday that version 3.6 of Firefox, due by the end of the year, will support the new Web Open Font Format, or WOFF. Web authors will be able to include WOFF fonts in their page designs by linking to the font files in their code the same way they link to images and other downloadable files.

WOFF becomes the third downloadable font format supported by Firefox — version 3.5 included support for TrueType and OpenType font downloads.

But WOFF has two key advantages over TrueType and OpenType: WOFF fonts are compressed, so they download faster, and they include support for tags and other unencrypted metadata.

This is a significant step forward not only for the emerging open format, but also for type on the web in general, which is still stuck in a state of mild turmoil.

For years, designers have been limited to using only a set of five or six common fonts on the web. But thanks to new font rendering tools within the emerging HTML5 and CSS3 standards, web designers now have the ability to use newer, more visually interesting typefaces — and make that type appear more consistently across browsers, operating systems and screen resolutions.

Even with these new abilities, intervening forces like DRM, licensing restrictions and varying levels of support from the browser makers have stalled progress, forcing the modern designer to resort to a variety of workarounds and hacks if they want to use these new fonts. Some possible solutions have shown up, including the OpenType standard and a “middleman” licensing model proposed by the startup Typekit, but haven’t yet gained traction. Earlier this month, popular website Boing Boing launched a redesign using CSS3′s @font-face rule, but ran into problems when things didn’t render correctly on older machines.

WOFF doesn’t promise to totally solve the problem of browser compatibility — it still uses the same paradigm within CSS3′s @font-face rule where users are served a preferred font choice first, but are then offered backup choices if their browser doesn’t support the first one. And there are still special considerations for IE 8 users, as Microsoft’s browser supports @font-face, but only if you use the .eot font format.

What it does do is improve workflows for those using downloadable fonts in their designs.

Mozilla contributor John Dagget outlines the compression and tagging advantages on the Mozilla Hacks blog:

First, compression is part of the WOFF format so web authors can optimize the size of fonts used on their pages. The compression format is lossless, the uncompressed font data will match that of the original OpenType or TrueType font, so the way the font renders will be the same as the original. Similar compression can be achieved using general HTTP compression but because compression is part of the WOFF format, it’s simpler for authors to use, especially in situations where access to server configuration is not possible.

Second, the format includes optional metadata so that a font vendor can tag their fonts with information related to font usage. This metadata doesn’t affect how fonts are loaded but tools can use this information to identify the source of a given font, so that those interested in the design of a given page can track down the fonts used on that page.

Dagget also notes that WOFF fonts aren’t “secure,” so the format shouldn’t be used by foundries wanting to regulate the use of their work. However, over 30 major type foundries — including House Industries, Hoefler & Frere-Jones and ITC — are already endorsing the format, and Mozilla’s support should help foster its popularity.

You can read more about how WOFF is used, plus see examples on the Mozilla Hacks blog. You can also check out WOFF support yourself by downloading the latest nightly builds of Firefox and giving it a whirl.

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