Focus on Fonts: A Look at OS X's Font-Management Tools

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Type can convey meaning just as strongly as words themselves. If you doubt this, consider the fonts used in the logos of two popular dolls -- Barbie and G.I. Joe. The rounded type of Barbie's logo connotes something friendly and youthful; the (literally) square-jawed type in G.I. Joe's logo is brawny and no-nonsense.

And if you still don't think fonts make a difference, just imagine if the Barbie and G.I. Joe fonts were reversed.

So it's clear that type plays an important role in most of the print, Web, and motion projects produced by creative professionals. For that reason, publishing pros mulling a move to Mac OS X should first familiarize themselves with how the new operating system handles fonts.

OS X introduces a number of font features that are entirely new to the Mac OS. Some of these tools will make your creative work much easier. Others could just as easily hamper your productivity.

Support Your Local PostScript

PostScript fonts have been a problematic area for the Mac OS. They can look jagged on screen in OS 9 unless you install Adobe's ATM Light or ATM Deluxe. (TrueType, developed by Apple, has long enjoyed native Mac OS support and, as a result, hasn't had the jagged problems.) That's why Adobe's announcement that it "has no plans" to release an OS X version of ATM Deluxe worried some publishing pros.

As it turns out, there's no reason to fret, but a cause to rejoice. In OS X, antialiasing qualities are built-in, so there's no need for a separate application to make PostScript fonts appear properly on screen. Harold Grey, group product manager for Adobe's publishing platform, says Adobe licensed the actual ATM Light code to Apple for inclusion in the new OS.

Having ATM code as part of OS X's code base provides basic recognition and rendering for PostScript fonts (Type 1 and OpenType) but "doesn't imply any additional functionality," Grey says. For example, you still need an OpenType-savvy program such as InDesign to take advantage of typographic niceties like swashes or small capitals that are built into OpenType fonts.

Although ATM Light isn't built into the OS X's Classic environment, which runs OS 9-compatible programs, you should be able to download a Classic-compliant version of ATM Light later this week from Adobe's Web site.

Font Management for Free?

There's another possible reason behind Adobe's reluctance to port ATM Deluxe to OS X. In addition to font rendering, ATM Deluxe helps you keep tabs on large font collections. But Apple has built into OS X a tool that sports features similar to a font manager.

Through OS X's Font Panel, you can group fonts (called collections ), choose faces within families, and alter font size. These collections are always "on," however; you can't activate or deactivate them the way you can in stand-alone font-management applications.

Rick McGowan, formerly an engineer at both Apple and Next, believes the Font Panel is a step in the right direction. "The system should provide solid support for organizing fonts and not require people to buy another application," he says. "But there is still room for programs that do better organization and keep track of huge numbers of fonts."

An even greater drawback, at least for now, is that the Font Panel works only with Cocoa programs -- that is, applications written specifically for OS X from the ground up. That's of potentially little use for many designers and publishers. The applications they rely on probably will first be written for OS X in the Carbon programming environment before they're created in Cocoa. The reason? Developers want to move their applications to OS X as quickly as possible and Carbonizing existing software allows them to do that.

Designers and publishers won't be left out in the cold, though. Full-fledged font managers, such as Extensis's Suitcase and DiamondSoft's Font Reserve, will be Carbonized before the end of 2001.

More Fonts to Choose From

To Apple loyalists, it may sound like blasphemy, but OS X supports more than just Mac versions of Type 1, OpenType, and TrueType fonts. It also supports Windows TrueType and OpenType fonts.

This cross-platform détente will help all publishing pros who share fonts with customers and colleagues on the PC side of the fence -- assuming, of course, that the applications they're using also support the formats.

Extensis Product Manager Michael Wong says that the next upgrade to font manager Suitcase will support any font format that OS X does. DiamondSoft President Brian Berson says he can't yet comment on support in the upcoming Carbonized version of the Font Reserve font manager.

Apple also introduced a new font format in X, called dfont . Macintosh files (including fonts) consist of two pieces, or forks. In the past, Macintosh fonts have stored font suitcases in the resource fork. This created difficulties when working cross-platform since Windows -- and at least some flavors of Unix -- stores information only in the data fork, so type foundries had to design two versions of fonts. Also, users were forced to compress Mac fonts before transmitting them via FTP. The dfont format resolves both of these issues by putting font suitcases in the data fork. Indeed, the majority of the fonts that come with OS X are in the dfont format, including 13 first-rate typefaces by famous designers.

Apple says that the format is for internal use. "Application developers don't need to worry about dfont," says Chris Bourdon, Apple's product line manager for Mac OS X technologies. He adds that dfont is "just a way of packaging some of the fonts to eliminate the resource fork."

Dfont is "not an important issue for publishing people," Berson contends. You can continue to use suitcases and printer fonts as you always have."

Some industry experts think dfont has use beyond Apple. OS X application developer Andrew Stone points out that dfont is basically a TrueType font in a binary file. "Because it's a simple binary file, you can use it on other file systems," says Stone. "The secret of OS X is that it will run on any architecture -- it's not limited to the Motorola chip. If OS X moves to Intel, say, dfonts can move right along with it."

McGowan agrees, calling resource forks "the devil's handiwork."

"The world didn't go that way, but Apple did and got stuck in a cul-de-sac," McGowan says. "Font file formats should be platform-independent."

Multiple Font Locations

In Mac OS 9, if you didn't use a third-party font manager and wanted your fonts to be active, you had to store them in the Fonts folder inside the System Folder. OS X gives you at least four locations to store typefaces -- the System Fonts folder; the Local Fonts folder; the Network Fonts folder; and an individual User Fonts folder. Classic also provides its own font location, the traditional Fonts folder in the System Folder.

Not surprisingly, makers of font-management programs say this profusion of possible font locations makes their applications even more valuable. "Users new to X will be confused as to where fonts should go," says Wong of Extensis. Berson believes that multiple locations can mean a greater chance for font duplication, which he says OS X's Font Panel does not resolve.

Apple disagrees. Bourdon says that the Font Panel handles duplicate fonts "by presenting only one to the user."

The Last Word

Like OS X itself, it seems that Apple's font strategy is continuing to evolve. And that could delay how quickly creative professionals switch over to the new OS. Until you're sure that making the jump won't disrupt your type needs and working habits, you'll probably be more productive sticking with the OS you already have.

These 13 faces, all included free with Mac OS X, are winners.
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