TrueType GX Lives On in OpenType Variable Fonts But Will It Live On at Apple?

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Today is the last day of the JGAT page 2017 expo at Sunshine Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Attendance has been up this year and it was a good chance to talk with the major Japanese font vendors exhibiting there: Morisawa, Iwata, Fontworks, Screen and DynaFont.

The recently announced OpenType Variable Font (OTVF)  format is still too new for any product announcements but there was plenty of discussion on the floor from programmers. Fontworks and DynaFont spent a lot of time and money developing TypeType GX Japanese fonts back in the early~mid 1990’s QuickDraw GX era before Apple pulled the rug out from under them with the Copland termination in 1996.

They can now put that knowledge to good use. An ex-Fontworks programmer said, “If you know GX variable font tables it is pretty easy to add them in and create OTVF. I expect to have full prototypes up and running this summer.”

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Japanese OpenType Variable Font Samples

A Japanese Market Perspective
I wrote about Matthew Butterick’s wonderful Thoughts on OpenType Variations in an earlier post and want to revisit two points he made.

The Upgrade Problem: the Japanese font market is now 90% subscription based with package software less than 10% of font revenue. This evolved because of multiple, painful, and expensive font upgrades that Adobe forced on the Japanese market.

The subscription advantage for Japanese customers is they can download what features they want (Adobe Japan 1-4, 1-5 glyph sets, etc.) and get new font feature enhancements as part of their subscription. Font upgrades are no longer an issue for the Japanese market.

The OS Problem: I agree with Butterick’s analysis that OS support will make or break OpenType Variable Fonts. Apple’s unique position is that out of all the OS platforms, only Apple controls software and hardware across desktop AND mobile. I think the OS challenge also comes down to two issues.

Low Level API vs High Level API: I am not a programmer but it is clear that most macOS/iOS app developers do not bother with low-level CoreText to add advanced typography. A comprehensive high level, clean and simple API needs to exist for advanced typography support than encompasses OpenType Variable Fonts. Put another way, advanced typography support needs to simple and simply everywhere in the OS and in apps.

The UI: Apple Advanced Typography (AAT) has been on the macOS platform since 1997  but the UI to access advanced typography features simply sucks. People don’t use advanced font features because they don’t know they even exist. Apple needs to redo the advanced typography UI for macOS and come up with something for iOS that makes sense for mobile.

If Apple wants OpenType Variable Fonts to succeed on macOS and iOS, they have to solve both problems. It is also time for Apple to decide if AAT has a real future on their platforms front and center, or none at all.

A Japanese font programmer neatly summarized the problem at the expo yesterday, “Today if you want to use Open Type advanced features you have to use InDesign or Illustrator right? That’s not going to cut it for OpenType Variable Fonts if we want them to be mainstream. It has to work everywhere.”