Writing, speaking, and translating the future

The rise of Unicode readers. Will ereaders kill typography?

The rise of Unicode readers. Will ereaders kill typography? 1

The Elements of Typographic Style is a masterpiece of a dying art.  Robert Bringhurst is a man of content and form. He is both a poet and a typographer. And his is a seminal work on Typography.

In my lifetime I have watched the desktop publishing revolution supplant 5 centuries of technology in just a few years. Photography was eliminated from the printing process and metal plates gave way to plastic straight-to-plate technologies. Typesetting as an art has given way to typesetting as a desktop publishing process. Electronic fonts and desktop publishing has opened new avenues of distribution and lowered production costs through print on demand services. And all of this is great but is the loss worth the added value. And are the problems surmountable on ereaders?

In this article I will quickly examine the function of Electronic fonts and discuss the potential that ereaders have to enhance the economic value of literature and other “printed” materials. I will also address one of the largest selling points of ereaders- reflowable text- and its effect on typography.

Unicode Fonts and Ereader language support

One of the largest challenges that has developed for font design is unicode support. Fonts now must not only support content in English or Western-European character sets but also RTL languages, East asian scripts, and even African dialects. This is a much larger technical challenge than was faced by earlier type designers. The best designers for these type of fonts are of course the companies that must utilize them. And I believe these font innovations will be adapted in the next few development cycles for ereaders to expand the market for these devices.

Apple has adapted True Type font into its own specification that it calls Apple Advanced Typography (AAT). AAT is the backbone of the Apple Unicode font strategy and it is probably the basis for its Ipad font support. The Ipad supports English, French, German, Japanese, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Russian.


This is an impressive start but I believe there are some indications that Amazon will soon unleash font support for 40+ languages.

Microsoft in conjunction with Adobe has adapted Apple’s truetype font innovations. Open Type can contain thousands of characters for every font.



I think that Microsoft’s recent patent deal with Amazon may very well include licensing OpenType for the Kindle 3. Such a move would truly open the Kindle and Amazon’s publishing platform (Digital Text Publishing) for worldwide use. Currently Amazon lists 19 languages on DTP (Afrikaans, Albanian, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Latin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish). Noticeably absent from the list is East Asian, and Bidirectional languages. Kindle 3 may introduce this support and thus expand Kindle to worldwide audiences.

I think the Kindle 3 will provide expanded font choices, and language support for East Asian and Right-to-left scripts.  It may or may not include a color screen, or video applications. Amazon’s main focus will be on improving the display capabilities for text and international scripts.  I think the device will be redesigned to support an array of character sets IME (input method editors are) and updated rendering to handle contest sensitive glyph shaping. Also the buttons and UI will be redesigned to satisfy the issues with text to speech menus, and international markets.

Reflowable text and dictionary is an obstacle to unicode support

Reflowable text has been a boon for the Kindle. It has made the device desirable among the elderly and vision-impaired since the font can be increased and the text automatically flows to fit the screen. To understand how this is a challenge to global markets we need to examine a few issues that arise for non-English users.

First not all languages are easily wrapped- Some languages most notably east Asian languages there are no spaces to indicate where a break might happen or breaks are based on syllables rather than word breaks. And other western European languages have special rules for breaking text, or identifying whether or not hyphenation is possible and in what situations it can be used. All of these add complexity to the process of rendering and reflowing text.

“English, Greek, Hindi, and Russian text wraps whole words onto the next line. Thai is wrapped on a word basis, but a dictionary or other mechanism is needed to detect word boundaries, since they are not separated by spaces. Arabic and Hebrew do the same, but the text wraps to the right. Wrapping of embedded Latin text produces a special effect that will be described later.Chinese, Japanese and Korean all wrap on a character by character basis, subject to the rules that will be described later. Korean is sometimes wrapped on a word basis, but it is more common these days to wrap on a character basis, despite the fact that Korean words are separated by spaces.(Rishida-part 5)

Hyphenation and justification- German issue- inter-word spacing implies emphasis so not common. Other languages allow no hyphenation, hyphenation at the end of syllables or require only certain parts of speech are hyphenated or hyphenation follow specific rules.

Most of the issues facing ereader makers have been addressed by the W3, Unicode consortium and software developers  for general operating systems, and word processing programs. But apparently these new ereader devices have not or cannot implement these methods.

Below is a primer from the Unicode group that identifies some of the major issues and how they have been addressed in software. I would recommend starting at part 1, but the link I give below skips to the discussion most relevant to our needs.

Most east Asian Scripts use a grid-like layout with the current reader screens this is possible and should be a slight adjustment to the software.

Spacing and font size is another issue that must be addressed for east asian characters- They often need much larger font sizes to be readable. This means devices will need larger screens.  Otherwise the user will be forced to click many more times when using different scripts.

Radicals and dictionaries- In Chinese, Japanese and Korean Radicals or common elements serve as the basis of dictionary and glossary ordering. Radicals are essentially building blocks of Kanji Characters. Unicode has grouped these characters as a set for use in UTF character encoding.


IME’s and internationalizing readers

For ereader devices to be truly international many will have to be redesigned with an eye towards marketizing the product for international release. The buttons would have to include recognizable and world-neutral icons rather than text, and input method editors that will allow East Asian languages to be input easily must be added. Apple’s ipad may have a jump start on these issues since it is keyless and utilizing TrueType however, due to their recent postponement of international shipping these features will not be tested in the wild any time soon.

Kindle vs. Ipad

Each of these devices as a reader are only as good as their content agreements.  They will need to have a broad variety of content at competitive prices to be successful. Apple seems to be taking a value-added approach by making newspapers and magazines interactive and visually based. “Living books” for an interactive age so to speak. Their largest problem is to make clear that the Ipad is a reader as well as everything else.

Amazon on the other hand is trying to turn their device into an epublishing platform.  Their biggest challenge will be to keep the quality of publications high, and make their library of growing content accessible to consumers. If you can’t find it, you can’t buy it!

It should be noted that the Kindle has already been hacked to display unicode fonts and the Ipad has this feature built in. So much of what follows may soon be moot.

The Kindle 2 has not allowed for a large variety of font choice. This strategy makes the wrapping and line-breaks easier, but it limits user choice.  Kindle 2 also depends in Amazon’s proprietary mobipocket format .azw. The current incarnation of AZW does not support unicode even though mobipocket does. If Amazon hopes to retain its ground against the onslaught of the Ipad and other ereader devices this should be rectified in the Kindle 3.

The Apple Ipad allows for a fairly large number of font choices. If this report is correct there are 44 font faces, and 109 font styles to choose from. And this list may give us hints as to the scripts Apple may soon adopt. The languages not yet supported that have fonts on the Ipad that will render them are Korean, Hebrew, Arabic, and Simplified Chinese.http://www.michaelcritz.com/2010/04/02/fonts-for-ipad-iphone/

This post was just a quick look at the issues facing unicode readers and a quick review of the strategy being implemented by the two main competitors in the field. It is a subject I will return as the technology and the strategies mature.

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