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October 6th, 1999

[Editorial] A giant step backwards for Adobe?
by Bill Troop

Rumors have been swirling in the graphics world that Adobe is about to announce a giant step backwards: it will no longer develop Multiple Master typefaces. Multiple Masters were first introduced to enormous fanfare eight years ago and have been in continuous development ever since. The basic premise of a Multiple Master is to give you a continuously adjustable typeface. In theory, you can dial in any variation of width, degree of lightness/boldness, or compensated optical size.

In practice, users have been disappointed over the years. One key reason is the poor support in page layout programs, including Quark XPress, Adobe PageMaker, and, the final insult, Adobe's own InDesign. Other problems have been apparent in the actual designs. The optical scaling capabilities, for example, never came up to user expectations. Moreover, some users experience printing/output problems. Nevertheless, the technology sometimes worked well in a limited way, and the ability, for instance, to dial in any weight of ITC Garamond, was potentially quite useful.

Questions abound: how long will Adobe Type Manager (ATM) continue to support Multiple Masters? It is all but official that ATM will be incorporated directly into future versions of MacOS and Windows. Yet, at the same time, all key Adobe applications now feature "Cooltype" -- a euphemism for ATM, which has actually been built into such applications as Acrobat, InDesign, Illustrator, and PhotoShop. That leaves an interesting question: if ATM is really going to be part of every Mac/Win station's future, then why should Adobe apps ship with megabytes of superfluous rasterizer technology? Could Adobe be paving the way for a world where only Adobe apps support Adobe type? It sounds absurd, and even a little frightening, but goofier conquest strategies have been attempted.

Of course, there may be more to Cooltype than we know, but if so, nobody's talking. And that could be for good reason: Cooltype is supposed to support OpenType, and OpenType supports potentially invasive digital signature capabilities that have alarmed privacy advocates. And privacy advocates are not the people you want on your tail when you're trying to introduce a new font technology that nobody can really be sure is necessary in the first place.

How will independent font developers react? Up until now, it was virtually impossible for any developer outside Adobe to manufacture Multiple Master typefaces. Now, thanks to FontLab 3, available at last on both Mac and PC platforms, independent developers can make viable Multiple Master typefaces for both platforms. Theoretically, this might lead to new Multiple Master introductions. But none have been announced, and font developers can reasonably fear that with Adobe's withdrawal, OS and application-level support for Multiple Master fonts will now be phased out, despite any promises to the contrary. Perhaps the Multiple Master phase-out is only part one of a strategy that would have been unthinkable a year ago: abandoning PostScript type altogether in favor of the more popular TrueType format. After all, if you get rid of Multiple Masters, translating PostScript fonts to TrueType becomes a cinch.

This is bad news for everyone in the graphic arts. Multiple Master technology was born out of the desire to bring to DTP a higher level of print quality than had ever been possible with digital or photo type. Although Adobe's implementation had near-fatal aesthetic and technological flaws, it represented the best effort yet to regain the superior aesthetic qualities and readability of the finest metal-era typefaces. Those began to disappear in the 1960s and are now used by only a handful of dedicated, ultra high quality printers. Multiple Masters had the (unrealized) potential to offer a great deal of that quality to the desktop users, without even asking them to think about it.

A question remains: why? Adobe has been quietly explaining to industry insiders that Multiple Master typefaces simply weren't selling enough, compared to single-master typefaces. Adobe says it prefers to focus its energy on upcoming OpenType fonts. Yet this assertion directly contradicts Adobe's published data on its most popular typefaces, which regularly shows a few Multiple Masters in the top 20. It has also been speculated that Microsoft is the culprit. Adobe has been working closely with Microsoft for several years on OpenType, the cross-platform technology which is supposed to unify and replace today's messy, limited, and incompatible hodgepodge of PC and Mac Type 1 and TrueType fonts. Microsoft was always dead set against permitting Multiple Masters into the OpenType spec. Reportedly, Adobe successfully fought Microsoft on this issue for several years, only to cave in at the end of the day.

To what avail you may ask? OpenType was promised to users by fall 1997 at the very latest. It now seems that it will be several years from now before this troubled technology hits its stride--if it ever makes it past the drawing board. Conceptually, OpenType looks like a small subset of Apple's famed GX technology, undoubtedly the best graphics system yet developed for microcomputers. GX died an ignominious death, probably because Apple refused to license it to Microsoft. So now, with Microsoft developing GX jr., what's the problem? Simply that Microsoft doesn't appear to have a tenth of the engineering prowess that Apple had, and still has. Cross-platform GX was viable years ago. But today, after years of intensive development, the powerful team of Microsoft and Adobe has still gotten virtually nowhere with OpenType. And, though Adobe and Microsoft are developing fonts for OpenType, nobody else is. Most independents were badly burned by the GX fiasco and see the same snare in OpenType.

If Multiple Masters are dead, who can carry the torch for fine typography? Only Apple: if its GX Variants technology could be implemented cross platform, we'd have a variable font technology superior to Multiple Masters. But don't hold your breath. That dazzling technology, the product of some of Apple's greatest, genius-level engineers, has been moldering in Apple's vaults for years, and likely will stay there till Kingdom come.

Was it necessary for Multiple Masters to die? Probably not. Several factors contributed: inexpert and uninteresting designs; a purportedly "open" technology that was in fact proprietary; and inadequate interface support early on to Aldus, Quark and Macromedia. None of this had to be. Pity, pity, pity!

Adobe declined to comment for this piece.

Your comments are welcomed.

Bill is an industry consultant who has worked in the computer industry for 12 years. He has written for many publications including MacWeek and PC Magazine. Bill's interests include hardware, typography, storage, and voicing his opinion...

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