While Web publishing continues to challenge the printed page as the primary means of sharing text, in one aspect it still lags way behind Johannes Gutenberg's 500-year-old technology: Web designers have a relatively measly choice of fonts supported by HTML.

There are a variety of solutions available that essentially download fonts to the user's browser when a site is visited -- including the Google font directory, Monotype's Webfonts, Extensis Web Ink, and TypeKit (who've just teamed up with Adobe) -- but now the standards body for the Web wants in on the action.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Fonts Working Group has launched version 1.0 of the The Web Open File Format (WOFF). This format will provide a platform for open source and commercial providers of fonts to make their creations easily available across the Web, according to W3C fonts activity lead Chris Lilley.

"In print, publishers use lots and lots of fonts all the time. And there is a mechanism for that: They can get a font from a particular client, and use it on their computers," Lilley said. "And when designers come to the Web, they're in shock when they find they can't do that."

Today, the vast majority of text rendered on the Web is rendered by browsers in a small number of typefaces, most provided to the Web by Microsoft, such as Arial, Verdana and Times New Roman. (Typographically speaking, the term typeface refers to a stylistic rendition of each letter in an alphabet, whereas the font refers to the a specific rendering of these letters).

This collection is but a small subset of the wide range of typefaces available for print media, though. Various initiatives, most confined to specific browsers, have tried to expand the palette of fonts, but have failed to take off, due the amount of work they required on the part of Web developers.

WOFF is an attempt to provide a platform for fonts that can be easily used by all browsers.

WOFF is actually a compression technology. A font owner can package a font in a WOFF container and post it on the Web. A browser, when it must render a page requiring the font, can download the font package, uncompress the font and use it to render the text. The page specifies the font needed with a Cascading Style Sheets(CSS)-based declaration.

The Mozilla Foundation provides an example page that allows the viewer to compare fonts already packaged in most browsers with a newly available WOFF-based downloadable font, the Charis SIL Compact (which is about a megabyte in size, or 80 kilobytes for the subset needed for the text). The Mozilla page allows the viewer to see how quickly the fonts load, as well as view the stylistic improvements. In the original incarnation, the page used a series of small images to render those letters that the browser could not render itself--the text itself is in the African Ewe and Adja languages. This technique of using images for letters slows the page loading time, gives the page an inconsistent lettering and makes the contents less scrutable to search engines, Lilley said.

The major browser makers are all currently incorporating, or are considering incorporating, WOFF into their products, including Apple, Google, Mozilla, Microsoft and Opera. Mozilla has started supporting WOFF with version 3.6 of the Firefox browser.

The developers behind the open source font editor, Fontforge is also adding WOFF support to their software.

In addition to potentially enriching the creativity of Web designers, the WOFF standard also tries to accommodate the commercial interests of font developers, or font foundries as they are frequently called.

Traditionally, fonts that could be purchased for Web use were often saddled with digital rights management (DRM) software, to prevent other sites from using the font without payment. DRM, however, turned out to be a headache to manage for commercial providers, Lilley said. While WOFF does not prevent unpaid use of commercial fonts, it does allow font foundries to easily identify which sites are using their fonts without their permission, thanks to the transparent nature of CSS.

"It turns out that the foundries didn't want DRM. In legal terms, they just wanted to make it a little more difficult [for Web developers] to accidentally infringe," Lilley said. In exchange for not using DRM, font producers will have a broader platform on which they can sell their wares, Lilley argued. "Having an effective format, means you can buy [easily] a Web license for a font," he said.