OpenType Variable Japanese Font Developments

A font developer friend of mine is working on OpenType Variable Japanese font prototypes and sent some screen shot samples. His work is intriguing and a reminder that the upcoming JAGAT Page 2017 conference and exhibition will be an interesting one for Japanese font developers.


I look forward to talking with Japanese font developers at Page and hearing their thoughts on OpenType Variable Font development.

Originally I planned to write a big long post discussing the points raised by Matthew Butterick’s Thoughts on OpenType Variations. Instead here are the main points I see from the Japanese market view.

Western font developers see OpenType Variable Fonts (OTVF) as a rerun of  Apple QuickDraw GX fonts vs. Adobe Multiple Master fonts. This was never the case in Asian markets because Multiple Master technology was incompatible with CJK fonts, just like the original version of PostScript.

This is the reason why OTVF is based on the TrueType GX model, not Adobe technology.

Font Upgrades
Unlike western fonts, Japanese PostScript font formats have never been stable. In western markets font upgrades are considered an unnecessary luxury, in Japan they are a fact of life. There have been three major upgrade cycles that Adobe forced on the Japanese market since Japanese PostScript launched in 1989: the OCF (Original Composite Font) PostScript font to CID PostScript font update, the OpenType upgrade, and the various enhanced character set upgrades (Adobe Japan 1-4, 1-5, 1-6 glyph sets). The upgrades were fixes addressing the numerous CJK shortcomings of the original PostScript format that QuickDraw GX had leapfrogged.

Japanese font developers lead by FontWorks Lets program followed by Morisawa’s Passport changed the Japanese font market from selling font package software to selling annual subscriptions, just like Adobe Creative Cloud. The upside for Japanese font users is they get any font upgrade ‘free’ as part of their yearly subscription. When OTVF Japanese fonts are released, users can download and start using them when they are ready to.

OS & App Support
This is where it all plays out. Will Apple or Microsoft simply add OTVF support deep in the OS leaving their application product teams and 3rd party developers to, perhaps, add support at some distant point? As Butterick points out, Microsoft’s Office team took a long time to add OpenType (OT) support. Apple’s own iWorks suite has yet to support any advanced OT features or basic CJK features such as vertical text layout.

I agree with Butterick’s view that the customer is right but there is a chicken or egg aspect. Only when OS support for OTVF is aggressively high up in the OS frameworks making it easy, almost mandatory, with all the built-in apps supporting it, do customers finally experience the value.

I still think that Apple with its unique position owning both desktop and mobile platforms, is the only one of the OTVF partners (Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple) that can pull that off, if it can be pulled off at all.

To put it another way: TrueType GX lives on in OpenType Variable Fonts but will it live on in Apple?