Why iOS Fonts Matter
I think Apple’s announcement today that iPadOS will gain support for fonts is a big deal: “Download fonts through major providers in the App Store, and then use them in your designs” — no further details as yet.
It had been reported as rumors in some trade publications over the past few weeks, and was confirmed in the WWDC keynote this afternoon. Here’s why I think it matters:
First, it’s easy to forget how important iPads are in the context of personal computing. Apple has sold something like 400 million iPads since the product was introduced in 2010.
Over all of those years, across all of those devices, across the 180 billion apps downloaded from the Apple App store, iOS users have not been able to install their own fonts to stye text in their applications. At least, not without using third-party software or other unsupported workarounds.
This hamstrung the utility of applications like Keynote for iOS, which has been available on iOS going all the way back to version 6.0 released in 2013. Over that entire history, the font menu of that application contained only a selection of 40 iOS system fonts. And it’s delayed the introduction of iOS versions of applications like Photoshop, which made no sense before today — not with a type tool crippled with only 40 system fonts. Photoshop for iPad was announced in December and promised for sometime this year.
These iOS font limitations extended to all third-party applications. And without access to fonts, real typography is impossible. And without real typography, professional-quality work cannot be done. My former colleague Khoi Vinh wrote about this quite elegantly, and gathered up the writings of many others on the topic, back in 2015.
Apple’s announcement today changes all of this. Access to real fonts on the iPad — even if a relatively limited selection — has the potential to transform billions of these devices into tools that can finally be used for professional productivity.
If Khoi is correct, and I think is, fonts may have been the primary barrier to enabling the devices to be a first-rate tool that could enable workflow, productivity, mobility, and collaboration for designers everywhere. Apple, with help from its friends in the type industry, may be setting down a road where iPads are the next major platform for designer productivity.
This has several potentially startling ramifications for the type industry. I’ll name a few. First, the concept of “desktop” font licensing has become obsolete, as virtually all desktop licensing customers now own one or more iOS devices that they’ll likely want to use their fonts on.
Adobe Font Folio’s “up to 5 devices” license now seems positively ahead of its time, unless you think 5 devices per user is suddenly not enough. It’s certainly not enough for those of us with home and work phones, computers, and iPads!
In any event, Adobe Fonts fonts are licensed under Creative Cloud restrictions on simultaneous use. It’s not clear to me how this will work with fonts on iOS, but I’m sure the Adobe Fonts team will find a humane implementation. I can think of some unpleasant things that could happen if fonts are suddenly uninstalled from an unsaved document on one device while I’m working on another.
For retail fonts sold to end-users, I think that “named user” licensing — which covers all of the devices that belong to an individual customer — should probably replace device licensing for most commercial foundries, lest they find themselves having to worry about those same kinds of scenarios.
Another important revelation for the type industry is to consider how the fonts get onto these devices. In the keynote, Apple showed logos from FounderType, Morisawa, Monotype, Adobe, and DynaFont, and said fonts from these providers could be downloaded directly from the App Store.
What does that means? Does it mean that only fonts from those vendors will be available through the app store? Or does it mean that the App Store will be open to fonts as a new type of content available for anybody to contribute and sell? I don’t know.
I do know that having Apple intermediating the relationship between font buyers and sellers is a pretty strange role for it to be playing in the type industry as we know it. Think for a moment about the role that Apple plays in curating apps in the Apple App Store. Think about the spectrum of quality, the challenges of piracy, and the competition in price that goes on there, and think what that might look like in our industry.
Equally troubling is the idea that the route to market of iPad users would be closed to all but the 5 providers shown on Apple’s slide. I can understand Apple’s interest in wanting to control the number of content providers of type, as it does for example of content on Apple TV. If I were Apple, I wouldn’t want to be in the business of curating Type — not for taste, and not for technical quality. I know what goes into doing that, and it ain’t easy.
I don’t know anything about what Apple is thinking on these topics. They could be headed in a completely different direction. But to me it seems clear that today’s announcement was a major one for the type industry.
UPDATE June 9 2019 — First, This video from Apple’s WWDC describes how apps can install and register fonts, and strongly implies that this capability will be available to independent publishers and not just Big Type. This thread from David Demaree is a must-read. David has been following these developments like thunder after lightning — you should definitely follow him.
It’s left up to us to wonder what those 5 partner logos in the keynote signified — perhaps only that those partners plan to offer fonts on the platform as well. I’m glad I was wrong in assuming what they meant. It’s good news.
Next, something that’s probably more of interest to app developers than to type foundries, but will probably interest both. It looks like applications will have the ability to invoke a “font picker” UI to select a font (which includes WYSIWYG preview functionality") but an app cannot enumerate all of the fonts installed on the system. It can only know about the pre-installed system fonts and the fonts that the app has, itself, installed — but it can’t build a list of fonts installed by other applications. This is described as being for privacy reasons. An apparent ramification of this is that design applications will not be able to build their own font browse and search interfaces, and must rely instead on Apple’s own system-level font picker UI.
Finally, after some discussion on Twitter, I’ll stand by my assertion that this could be a good time to revisit the concept of “desktop” licensing. I think it’s a bad practice for us to expect customer to understand names that don’t mean what they say. I also think it’s a good practice for end-user licenses to explicitly cover the majority of uses that we believe most of customers will need.
It’s not a Copernican revelation to say that “Desktop” licenses could be renamed “user” or “individual” licenses, and rewritten to cover all of the devices they each own. But I do think steps like these can make a difference in moving the industry towards one that is friendlier towards the mass market of paying customers that we’d all like for it to attract.