Welcome to our new blog. I’ll start my first posting with an old but relevant joke.

Question: What do you call two typographers in one room?
Answer: An argument…

So what do you call a blogspace full of type folks? Well, we hope we’re creating a place where we can share knowledge with folks outside of Microsoft and grow closer as a result. Judging by some of the exchanges on type topics in the past, it won’t always be that cosy. But it should be interesting, informative, and – we hope – fun.

Type can be a pretty contentious subject. Almost everyone, regardless of their level of expertise, has an opinion about it.

That’s because we tend to take reading for granted, since we learn how to do it at about five years of age, and we continue to use the same basic technique for our whole lives – no one ever asked us to upgrade to Reading Version 2.0…

Yet it’s a core human competency. Most of us use it every day of our lives. It’s hard to imagine a world without it.

It’s a magical technology; the closest humans have come so far to inventing telepathy. Consider how it works. I have a thought. I make some dirty marks on a piece of shredded tree, send them to you, and you get my thought – even if I’m five thousand miles away. And my thoughts stay available to you for more than a thousand years.

Most people outside the world of design and layout of text don’t realize just how complex is the work involved in creating the text that we read every day. But ask anyone in the field of text composition and font design what they do, and they will happily go on for hours, or days. Many books have been written over the years on the deep intricacies of type.

Writing systems first appeared 5500 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq. But 550 years ago, a new technology invented in Mainz by the German goldsmith and metallurgist Johannes Gutenberg began a revolution that changed the world. All of our modern economic prosperity, science, and technologies are built on the foundation of widespread literacy and education which Gutenberg’s technology enabled.

Now a new and even bigger revolution is occurring. Reading – which in the West has been almost exclusively paper-based – is being done more and more on the computer screen. We’re still in the early days of this revolution, but it’s now unstoppable. We have spent 550 years learning how best to put dirty marks on shredded trees. Now we’re learning how to take reading into the new digital age.

The Microsoft Corporation has continually set new standards for readability of text on the screen, ever since the core fonts in Windows 3.1 established a new quality bar back in the early 1990s. I had the good fortune in 1994 to be asked to come and run the group called Microsoft Typography which had done that stunning work. Since then, we have focused on improving text on the screen and ushering in the new age of Digital Reading.

When the World Wide Web began to really take off in 1995, we began a project with renowned type designer Matthew Carter to create new fonts for the screen which were expressly designed for reading large amounts of text. Matthew designed two faces, which were then hinted for the screen by Tom Rickner and others at the Monotype Corporation, and our in-house typographers, Michael Duggan and Geraldine Wade. The sans serif face Matthew created was Verdana, which shipped first with Microsoft Internet Explorer, then Microsoft Windows, and is now a standard for readability on the Web.

In 1998, Microsoft began a research project on electronic books. It will be some years yet before there’s any real business there. But the interesting point about electronic books is that to make them feasible at all you have to display text on screen that people can read comfortably for hours at a time. It sets a whole new bar for quality.

As research over many years has proved, you can’t just make type bigger to solve the problems. We read using an area of the human retina called the fovea, which is only about 0.2mm across, and has an arc of vision of only 1.5 degrees. So readability needs type for body text that’s no smaller than 9 points, and no larger than 13 points. The challenges for displaying type at this size on screens with resolutions of around 100 pixels per inch are enormous.

In the drive to solve the resolution problem for e-books, Bert Keely and I invented ClearType – a very neat trick to increase the resolution of screen hardware using software alone. Microsoft currently has some 24 patents on ClearType granted by the US Patent Office, and ClearType now ships with every copy of Microsoft Windows XP, and Microsoft Office 2003.

In the course of the work on electronic books, we created a new group at Microsoft called Advanced Reading Technologies. Most of the key people involved in the original core fonts project are part of this team. Our mission is simple: Research and develop innovative technologies which improve reading on the screen for Microsoft customers worldwide.

Reading on the screen has become important enough to the company that Bill Gates has made improving it one of his personal “Top 5” priorities, because we all know that the paper documents we’ve used for centuries are transitioning to the new digital medium. Electronic mail and the web are leading the way; business documents are following close behind. Textbooks, magazines, newspapers – everything that’s printed on paper today – will eventually follow. Books won’t disappear. But why should our children have to lug 35-pound backpacks to school when they could carry every book they need from kindergarten to college in a single device weighing less than two pounds?

The great thing about focusing on the electronic book problem is that books are the extreme case of reading. Solve the problems of making them readable, and you solve the problems of any text.

In the course of our work on ClearType and creating new typefaces for electronic books, we realized that the unique knowledge we have could be used to design new typefaces which took advantage of the way ClearType works.

We are committed to excellence. So it was obvious that if we wanted to create new ClearType-optimized typefaces, we should work with the best designers in the world. We asked type designers to submit draft designs to be judged competitively; we commissioned complete designs and then built computer fonts using the highest-quality technology we had – ClearType has evolved a great deal since we invented it in 1998.

The new Western fonts which will ship next year in Microsoft Windows Vista are the result of that project.

We are also highly committed to the word “worldwide” in our mission statement. All of the many problems involved in displaying Latin-based text on a computer screen pale into insignificance when compared with the difficulties of displaying the complex written form of languages like Japanese, with their tens of thousands of characters, at the sizes at which people need to read.

We decided to take on this challenge, and recruited a world-class team of external partners. Japanese type expert Eiichi Kono worked with us to define the large character set, and to help us develop technologies to overcome the major problem of not having enough pixels available to show all the strokes in many kanji characters. We asked Matthew Carter to work with us again, so we could produce the Latin characters (romaji) used in Japanese, designing these to harmonize with the kanji and kana glyphs. The Agfa Monotype Corporation again provided top-quality hinters.

The new Japanese font was named Meiryo. The projects to create both it and the Western fonts were personally reviewed and approved by Bill Gates before work began. At first, he didn’t believe the Japanese project was even possible with today’s technology, or that a major readability improvement could be made in anything like the timeframe and cost we suggested. He’s convinced now…

In addition to these projects, Bill challenged us some years ago to put more “science” behind reading. Most of the readability work done in the 20th Century focused on print. So we have funded a program of university research aimed at bringing us greater understanding of the different factors involved in reading from a screen. We use this research for two purposes; we allow research groups to publish their findings to add to the knowledge base; but we also study findings carefully and use them to help us develop new innovative technologies to take advantage of what we learn.

Now that we’ve begun this blog, members of the team will contribute postings to it. We hope you’ll find it a valuable place to visit, discuss, question and comment,

Bill Hill