Apple Advanced Typography


John Gruber and other writers have noticed that Safari does not support recent high end typography web developments:

It’s disappointing how poorly Safari fares here. Mac OS X has had wonderful built-in typographic features for over a decade — Apple led the industry. But now, on the web, Apple trails the industry.

He is partly right but misses a much larger story: the arrival of any new platform always means a reset for high end typography. Everything except the most essential features are striped out and reset from scratch, usually at a slow pace because advanced typography is not a priority. And when they do reappear, advanced typography features end up in low level frameworks that require a lot of knowledge and work for developers to use. Most of them don’t bother.

Advanced typography only matters for developers when it moves up to high level frameworks and the OS ‘just takes care of it’. A look at Apple’s advanced typography story illustrates this point.

  1. 1998~1999 Apple ditched QuickDraw GX in the transition from Classic Mac OS to OS X.
  2. 1999~2003 Apple ported some essential GX typography features missing from NextStep with the Carbon ATSUI framework.
  3. 2004~ ? Apple ditched ATSUI for Core Text for the 64 bit/Cocoa/iOS framework transition.
  4. June 2010: CoreText makes it to the iOS platform with iOS 4.
  5. September 2013: Text Kit arrives in Cocoa Touch to simplify adding, some, advanced typography features to apps.

For the record Apple developer documentation says

Text Kit is a set of classes and protocols in the UIKit framework providing high-quality typographical services that enable apps to store, lay out, and display text with all the characteristics of fine typesetting…

Developers love the ease of Text Kit but developers who want to do anything outside of the western typography conventions, such vertical text layout, are out of luck. The only option is to put on some man pants, burrow down to the low level CoreText and do everything manually.

Looking back, everybody except Asian developers missed the whole point of QuickDraw GX. It was not Apple vs. Adobe, or GX vs PostScript, it was not even about technology. It was all about moving scattered low level advanced typography features into a unified framework then taking it up as high as it could go in the OS to make it a standard, across the board system feature for all apps, developers and users.

With iOS driving Apple’s OS strategy, Apple is only going to deploy features they can deliver on iOS and OS X more or less simultaneously. That’s why Apple dumped OpenType feature support, and a lot more, with the iWorks reboot. It’s the same story for Safari/WebKit advanced typography support.

In the end it comes down to how important is it to Apple to put effort into moving high end but low level advanced typography features higher up in the frameworks, as high as they can go.

In this age of iOS, that goal is not a priority for Apple, and has not been so for a long time.