Technology musings
September 2004

Mac Font Musings

Working in an industry that relies heavily on design, I understand the importance of fonts. There is a long standing practice in the publishing field that to remove any potential text reflow issues, all fonts are removed from the system. Now, if a customer has a Helvetica font in which all of the letters have unique s p  a  c  i  n  g , this could cause a big problem if you substituted the wrong font. All is well and good, until you try to run an application that requires certain fonts.

Recently, I worked on a Java Web Start application. I noticed a lot of inconsistent behavior. As a matter of fact, the application was simply unstable. I say that the application was unstable, but in fact, even Java Web Start would not function consistently. In researching this issue further I discovered a link between these application problems and our missing fonts. (Read more about this in Fun With the JVM)

Apple has stated here that this is a known issue. They even state that their own applications, including Apple System Profiler, TextEdit, Address Book, and Safari, won’t function if you move or remove system fonts. Now, I don’t know how many of you have tried to convince a publishing company that their practice of removing fonts is a bad idea, especially since they have been doing this since Steve Jobs was with Apple (the first time), but it ain’t easy.

Font locations:

It seems that the people at Apple like choice. There are 5 (to begin with) places where the system expects to find fonts. There are certain rules that applications are expected to follow when searching for appropriate fonts. If an application makes a request for a certain font it must first look in the users font folder. If the font is not found there then there are other places to look; System Font Folder, Network Font Folder, if it’s a Tuesday look in the Utilities Font Folder, Full Moon means that you only get Arial, etc. So, what’s to say that a third party application will follow these rules?

There are a number of companies out there that exist simply because of the Desktop Publishing Industry, and thus, only for the Mac. Some of these companies do a good job of adhering to the rules that Apple has defined for them. Some of them think of themselves as exempt from these rules. Therein lies the problem.

There are font management tools. With the latest release of OS X, Apple even includes it’s own font management utility. The problem is that even these tools can’t access the fonts located in the System Font folder.

I decided to try a little experiment. I pulled my chair up in front of a test Mac that had been left under my care. I promptly visited every folder that contained any kind of font and removed them from the system. I wouldn’t suggest anyone try this without a good backup. When I removed the last set of fonts from the System I was completely hosed. The toolbar disappeared, the finder window that I had open went blank. A reboot brought me back to a nice blue screen, without any graphics, without any text, without any distinguishing marks of any kind. Why would anyone want to cripple a machine in this way? Exactly…

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone played nicely together? I know that OS X is still in it’s infancy and problems are to be expected. Let’s hope with the upcoming release of Tiger that some of the problems are resolved.

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