Thursday, June 24, 2010

Apple damaging ePub standard with pseudo-support

I have been amazed by the number of people who have commented on yesterday's post, Apple kills fonts in iBooks, strikes blow to standards, with some variation of

"it's better for Apple to limit font choice because ebook designers will make unreadable, ugly designs we can't live with"

I'm just wondering if those folks think there should be fonts at all. Perhaps we should require a license before one is allowed to choose a font. And how did we miss the boat on print designers? They've been running wild!

Here's the thing. Fonts exist. They exist because we humans like variety, we like experimenting, we like design. And if you don't like it, you don't have to buy it. Printed materials have been going on this premise for hundreds of years, and no-one has had the temerity to suggest that Apple should decide what fonts they use!

But there's more. Apple says it supports the ePub standard. The ePub standard requires support of the font-family property. But Apple supports the font-family property only for some parts of a book, notably leaving out the ones that make it easy to style the body text. (And, it should be noted, iBooks does support adding all sorts of other kinds of formatting to the body text with no compunctions at all: color, size, bold and italic... don't tell those dastardly designers!)

But that doesn't mean you can't choose a font for the body text in iBooks 1.1. It just means you'll need an ugly, non-standards-supporting hack to do it. It would be one thing if Apple, like some other ePub readers, didn't support fonts at all, but it's quite another to support fonts in this completely non-standard, hack-inviting way.

This not only is annoying in a paternalistic, "I know better than you", sort of way, it will end up damaging the ePub standard, and costing extra time and money as designers, once again (have we really forgotten IE5 already???), create multiple designs to work in different ways on devices that supposedly should just work.

My bet is that there are a fair number of people who prefer a well-designed book to one in a generic font with full justification and no hyphenation. Just go to a bookstore and see for yourself.


  1. Standard Apple Speak..."we must be in control of the reality distortion field at all times...resistance is futile, you will be assimilated!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. To quote Henry Ford, “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black.”

  4. Your post fails to account for the fact that most ePUBs force all elements in the content to have the same font. And that font is often Times New Roman (likely because that's what InDesign outputs). Thus iBooks has to force fonts to what the user selects.

  5. @Anonymous. The fact that most EPUB files do not specify a font does not mean that we should not start doing so.

  6. You misunderstand. The DO specify a font, usually something terrible, like Times New Roman and they usually do it on the p,span,div elements and not on the body element. The EPUB producer likely did not intend for the fonts to be explicitly specified, InDesign simply decided for them.

  7. As Henry Ford said, "you can have any color as long as it's black". I am sure I can now get a Ford in a variety of colours at my local dealership. In conclusion, that theory did not work.

  8. I have been trolling the net about this issue for weeks now. I have to say it sucks that the iPad (and many other devices) has so little flexibility in the font department. Yea, you can say you don't like fonts that we publishers pick. That is your prerogative. However, in our case, we have a fantasy book in which the author uses a different font to show that the dialog you are reading is in a language that is not the common language. This is a part of the plot, and using a different font makes sense. Unfortunately, as the iPad defaults this different font to look like all the rest of the text, it does not read well and is confusing to the reader.

    I do not think that we, the publishers, are asking for much. Just a few fonts with a little variation.

  9. Apple, for the moment perhaps, want the content to be seen as part of the hardware it is viewed on. As well as legibility and text hierarchy, fonts can convey themes of branding and historical identity. At the moment this is more subtly shown in printed text, but surely one day it will be in ebook formats.


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