Canonical recently launched a "beta" testing program for its still-in-development Ubuntu font. The font is provided through an Apt repository accessible only to Ubuntu Members — individuals who actively contribute to the project, apply, sign a code of conduct, and are approved by community membership boards. The font is intended for screen usage as the default interface font in the next Ubuntu release, covering the extended Latin-A, Latin-B, Greek Polytonic, and Cyrillic character sets.
The new font is part of Canonical's branding and visual identity refresh first introduced with Ubuntu 10.04. Canonical contracted development of the font to type foundry Dalton-Maag, who is scheduled to deliver several weights of the font (including bold, italic, and monospace) in time for the October release of Ubuntu 10.10. Currently, only the regular weight is available for testing. The font name is "UbuntuBeta" inside the TrueType binary, though it may be renamed before final release.
Non-members can test the font via a web application that uses the @font-face construct in CSS 3, rendering user-provided sample text at any size from 6 to 36 points. An account on Ubuntu's Launchpad.net service is required to use the web application, though, because the tool ties into Launchpad's bug tracking system. Canonical says that the visual design of the font is complete, but is soliciting feedback from users about kerning, hinting, and other potential rendering problems. The web application allows users to select problematic glyphs in the rendered text and submit bug reports against the project.
Criticism of "closed" beta
The company's decision to restrict the current beta only to Ubuntu
Members has drawn its share of ire, however. Maia Kozheva posted a blog entry styled as a letter
to Canonical criticizing the restricted-access beta as "contrary to
the entire spirit of free software." Several commenters at
Kozheva's blog and on general news sites covering the launch agreed.
Kozheva also expressed skepticism about the "open" license Shuttleworth
said the font would be published under, which has yet to be specified much less applied to the release.
Canonical's Jorge Castro commented (the third comment on Kozheva's post) that the font was made available in a limited test because of its incompleteness, saying "font foundries who make fonts don't like beta fonts to spread because once they do they feel it's hard to track down who has the font and update that." He also addressed Kozheva's concern that the as-yet-undetermined license for the font would not be sufficiently free, noting Ubuntu's policy to ship only free software in the "main" Apt repository.
At one level, font foundry's reluctance to release pre-1.0 fonts for public consumption is understandable; no one enjoys widespread dissemination of buggy work. But the suggestion that fonts are intrinsically different from other software in this regard does not stand up to examination. After all, people have argued in the past that particular niches of software or types of project do not fit the standard "release early, release often" open source development model, and should be excused.
Those wanting to be excused tend to conjure up the same spectre: that early releases will confuse and frighten end users, hurting them and endangering the project. But that bogeyman ignores years of successful open source development in all areas of computing, and there are examples of successful projects for each niche claiming an exception.
To its credit, despite Castro's comment, Canonical does not seem to be
motivated by a desire to keep the Ubuntu font secret prior to its official
release — the CSS-based testing tool and call for bug reports are
evidence enough of that. Rather, the fundamental issue is more likely to
be that the font is a commissioned work from a third-party, and the company
may not own it until it is delivered in final form by the contractor. That
would be in line with Canonical's current lack of a license selection, but,
apart from corporate lawyers, there is simply nothing to prevent the company from announcing what the license will be.
Canonical's font commission from Dalton-Maag follows the pattern established by the Liberation and Droid font sets in years past. Both Liberation and Droid were commissioned by Linux distributions (Red Hat and Google's Android, respectively) from Ascender Corporation. Although both were released under open source licenses when complete — Liberation under the GPL with a font-embedding exception clause, and Droid under the Apache license — neither was made available for beta testing during its development.
The Open Font Library (OFLB) project's Dave Crossland said that he believes "libre fonts ought to be developed fully public from the start," but that in its historical context, the Ubuntu Beta program is a welcome innovation and ought to be applauded. To the best of his knowledge, he said, no proprietary font companies release beta testing versions of their fonts — although some custom fonts designed for print publications undergo ongoing revision, which has a similar effect regarding feedback from readers.
In addition, Crossland added that the CSS font testing web application deployed for the Ubuntu Beta font is itself an impressive development, and makes collecting rich bug reports easy.
Challenges for open font development
Fonts certainly can be developed in the open, as OFLB's library demonstrates. Practically speaking, however, most fonts released under open licenses are not developed using public source code repositories, version control systems, and issue trackers. Crossland observed that (apart from operating system default installs) fonts are historically installed by users as binaries, rather than through package repositories that facilitate updates. That has long been the case on proprietary operating systems, and is common practice for commercially-purchased and "free font" downloads by Linux users. "Instead we drag'n'drop binary files into system font folders by hand, and of course we never check back to see if there are updates for that font we installed and mostly forgot about." As a result, fonts do not receive the type of feedback from users that helps them to evolve.
Changing this development process is something that OFLB has been discussing in recent months, including planning for a revision to the project's public web site. Nicolas Spalinger, co-author of the Open Font License and member of the Debian pkg-fonts team, helped develop an "open font design toolkit" package now available in Debian and in Ubuntu that includes not just the design tools, but version control, diffing and patching utilities, and skeleton files for maintaining change logs.
Equally important to open font development is enabling users to make contributions. As it stands today, it is not easy for end users to contribute back to a font. Source code packages are available for several open fonts, but there is no packaging standard between distributions, and sometimes not even within a distribution. Some source packages contain .SFD sources for the font editor FontForge, for example, but not build or installation scripts. Ubuntu's graphical Apt front-ends Synaptic and Ubuntu Software Center do not even allow browsing or downloading source packages.
To non-developers — who constitute the largest group of potential font contributors — editing fonts remains effectively out-of-reach. It is not a hypothetical concern, either. Several readers commented on the Ubuntu Font Beta announcement that they would like to contribute additional characters or alphabets to the font; without some changes, it will be hard for them to do so.
Clearly, the challenge of opening up fonts to the same standards of
software freedom common in other packages is not unique to Ubuntu or
Debian. Other distributions are showing signs of taking the subject more
seriously; Fedora, notably, has an active font Special Interest
Group (SIG) packaging open fonts in binary and source form. While the
"members only" beta program Canonical unveiled for its font commission
raised some objections, it needs to be seen in context, as one small move on a longer trajectory of opening up fonts.
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