Above: Not many knew, but it was named after a Pacific island. Makambo built a generally solid reputation as a font distributor but announced it would shut its virtual doors in March 2001

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    All quiet on the western font

    The font industry's Makambo.com, founded by Books.com creator Charles Stack, was another high-profile closure. Profitable, successful, but no longer part of its parent's corporate vision. What is the state of play in the font world? Jack Yan ponders, both as a marketing strategist and the head of a font company

    ANOTHER distributor called it quits. Makambo.com announced that it would cease operations on March 30, leaving numerous foundries in the lurch. The company cited a change in corporate strategy, emphasizing that while Makambo had been successful, it could not devote as many resources to it. That included, one expects, its excellent customer services’ staff.
       While the Makambo closure won’t leave devastating effects on the web, it has left numerous foundries in the lurch. Those who had chosen Makambo as their primary font distribution channel will need to find another. We had contributed our entire range to Makambo from the beginning, when it was still known as Flashline. Fortunately, for JY&A Fonts, we have other distribution channels, but few have come close to the flexibility that Makambo offered.
       Makambo began with a great deal of hype, some of it contributed by us. It was a credible font market-place, backed by Charles Stack, the man who brought the world books.com. It attracted the interest of at least one major typefoundry. The attraction for us was not so much the online medium, but the retention of customers. Those browsing the JY&A Fonts web site no longer had to hang up, if they were surfing on a dial-up line, to call their nearest distributor. We would retain their interest, striking them while the proverbial iron remained hot. Offline distributors caught them when they were lukewarm.
       While our offline distributors had done tremendous work promoting our line, it was, expectedly given our relatively small range against Adobe et al, that we would not have the same profile. It was no coincidence that our sales really began in force after our web site was developed.
       In less than two years, however, Makambo joined another high-profile font effort, Design Online. Design Online was bought out in 2000 by Getty Images and ceased its font marketing.
       There are perhaps some disturbing hypotheses. The first is that fonts are becoming more greatly commodified. The public fascination with them is lowering. This was forecast by Bitstream when it initially departed from its font development in 1993 and began giving away its fonts in OEM licensing agreements. (It returned to its roots when MyFonts.com was set up.) As interest waned, so did dot coms’ willingness to distribute them.
       Second, it shows the unsustainability of some dot coms. This is already apparent to internet observers. Many had forecast doom and cried tulipomania ever since Amazon.com emerged. An exaggeration, perhaps, but it would be foolish to say that there was no bandwagon mentality at play.
       Possibly, a third angle is the development of the industry. Knowledge is increasing exponentially. Foundries do not always find it easy to keep up, particularly smaller, boutique players. We have the capability to go OpenType straight away, but it is mastering it to the quality of our TrueType and PostScript offerings. We have not had enough time. Or perhaps willingness to invest time.
       That takes us to the fourth hypothesis. Are fonts worth so little now that foundries are unwilling to spend as much developing them?
       Which ones apply?
       Past experience shows that fonts did not always have a high public profile and it was only with the advent of the home computer that people began taking some interest in them. The prediction that by the end of the twentieth century people in the developed world would have a favourite font has largely come true. They may not be necessarily discerning—I once overheard a conversation where the favourites included Book Antiqua and Arial—but at least they are aware. Our sales show no sign of waning and piracy aside, there appear to be few complaints. More developers are getting into fonts. We project that embedding technologies will improve to the point where they could be incorporated into packages like Dreamweaver. OpenType will be more widely adopted. But that has to start from companies like ours that can promote typography.
       The second hypothesis has been been totally by recent events and dot com crashes. It is not the end of the internet, nor its capitalization. Companies are on a learning curve. They have found that the failure to brand properly has a high price. Online branding is a mixture of common sense and experience, but both have often been ignored in the high-profile crashes we’ve seen of late. It does mean the next bright idea may not get the funds it deserves as venture capitalists seek proof of potential profit. The inflation of figures in pro forma income statements is no longer a proper way.
       The third does seem to have some truth behind it. Many of the smaller foundries are sticking to the tried and trusted Adobe PostScript Type 1 and TrueType formats. Customers have used these for years. That, and the wait for FontLab and its competitors to adopt OpenType capabilities, have meant that not every foundry is willing to invest in yet another learning curve. Most typeface designers are not full-time. They literally cannot afford it, unless the bulk of their income comes from fonts. That, in my experience, is highly unlikely.
       The number of new font releases does seem to have slowed but it is not the lack of interest in developing them. We see a rise in the number of submissions to JY&A Fonts. What may be more responsible is the end of the grunge era, which means that home-made fonts distressed from others’ copyrighted materials no longer have any demand (not to mention the potential legal ramifications). We are being more fussy about what we develop.
       The font industry seems to be a case of glass half empty versus glass half full. On the surface, there may be negative forces, but being within it, they can easily be explained away. As new technologies pass from the large players like Adobe to the smaller boutique foundries, there will be more activity once again. There won’t be a rush to any new format—QuickTime GX illustrated that to type developers—but the new technologies will bring new possibilities, finely crafted type and better value to consumers. Until the pendulum swings again and people will look at grunge type with nostalgia when the first wave of 1990s retro revivals hits in 10 years’ time.

    Jack Yan Editor

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