In December the Localization team of the Wikimedia Foundation, of which i am a proud member, deployed the support for web fonts in Wikipedias in several languages of India. Put simply, this technology allows anyone with reasonably modern web browser to read Wikipedia in an exotic language without manually installing exotic fonts on his computer. Tom Morris wrote a very nice blog post that explain why web fonts matter: Web fonts were invented for making web sites niftier, but they are useful for something much more important beyond aesthetics and design – to enable people to read and write in any language effortlessly. People need to be able to read and write effortlessly using a computer, but this notion is so basic that it is frequently overlooked.
Basically, web fonts turn this:
◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌, ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌.◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌, ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌.
Near the beginning of his career, Einstein thought that Newtonian mechanics was no longer enough to reconcile the laws of classical mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field.
Without webfonts, a person who speaks a language that is not written in Latin letters has two choices when seeing “◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌”: to install fonts manually or to try to find that information in English or some other language that is written in Latin. Two frequently ignored facts: 1. most people don’t know how to install fonts on their computers; 2. most people don’t know English.
Web fonts make text readable without any effort from the user. Wikipedia is probably the first major website that uses web fonts for the really important purpose of allowing people to read websites in their language. This post here will highlight some technical details about the deployment.
A spoiler: Firefox rulez.
Microsoft Internet Explorer, not surprisingly, has the most issues with web fonts support. For example, it sometimes shows complete gibberish instead of the actual letters. The situation is especially bad on Windows XP; Windows XP is an old system, but it matters, because lots of people in India and in many other countries still use it – about 17% of Wikipedia’s readers use Internet Explorer on Windows XP. Even though Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 seems to handle web fonts decently, it cannot be installed on Windows XP, so it’s irrelevant to hundreds of millions of people. My advice to them – get Firefox.
Opera sucks here and there, too. For example, on a Mac, Opera may fail to show English (!) words, because it tries to show them in an Indic font, and if an Indic font doesn’t have Latin characters, the display is broken. Google Chrome has similar problems, too.
In Firefox we found practically no issues with web fonts support. The only problem with Firefox that happened during the deployment of WebFonts is that Firefox didn’t load the fonts at all, but actually that happened because Firefox implements the web fonts standard correctly. On our testing site the font files were loaded from the same server as the web page itself, while on the actual Wikipedia the font files are loaded from a different domain to improve performance. The web fonts standard says that by default a browser is not supposed to load fonts from a different domain, unless that domain explicitly allows this. Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer override this standard and load the fonts and Firefox doesn’t. When we noticed it, we asked Wikimedia’s web server administrators to change the configuration to explicitly allow the loading of fonts. Wikimedia’s web server configuration files are open, so you’re welcome to read them by clicking the link.
I didn’t make any precise measurements, but from my personal experience Firefox has much less issues with support for Unicode, complex fonts and right-to-left text than any other browser. It surely does have issues, but my impression is that Chrome, Internet Explorer and Opera have much more of them.
We reported the font issues that we found in Google Chrome to its developers and we hope that they will be fixed. We also tried to report issues in Opera and Internet Explorer; since there’s no public bug tracking systems for these browsers, we cannot track their development.