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
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
That takes us to the fourth hypothesis. Are fonts
worth so little now that foundries are unwilling to spend as much
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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