Web Font Language Support: A Global Solution

by Steve Lee

The top 5 languages used online are English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that 22.6% of Internet users have Chinese as their primary language. Web support for world languages is increasingly being recognized as a key success factor for global enterprises. That’s why we think the promise of Web fonts as a global solution rests on language support.

One of the biggest challenges for Web font providers is to support as many languages as possible. Certain world scripts, such as non-Latin writing systems like Chinese, Japanese and Korean, extend the challenge further because of their large numbers of characters and the burden this places on delivering text quickly to your screen. When you land on a Web page, you expect that the text should display instantly, no matter what the language.

The problem is that large font file sizes can cause slower page load times. To overcome the font size vs. speed issue, different approaches for different fonts that support different languages are needed. The goal is to deliver fonts as quickly as possible and hide the complexity from the user. Web Fonts offers lightning fast delivery for over 40 major languages, including those with gigantic character sets like Chinese, Japanese and Korean. So, how do we do it?

Dynamic Subsetting
Looking closely at Chinese, Japanese and Korean fonts, they each can have thousands of characters, from 10,000 to 30,000 or more. The average Chinese Big5 font with 13,000 characters is about 8MB. A Unicode 6 font has 109,449 characters and can require more than 50 MB. That’s where our Dynamic Subsetting comes in.

We are able to deliver fonts that contain ONLY the characters used on the page, thus dramatically reducing font file size. Our patent-pending invention called Dynamic Subsetting accomplishes this. Here’s how it works: a JavaScript code is placed in the target HTML page, which parses the page and reports back to the Web font servers which fonts and which characters are used on the page. This operation is done in a local machine; a simple POST back is rather uncomplicated and small in terms of size. The process is instant. Upon receiving the fonts and character information, the font servers generates the fonts containing only the required characters.

Without Dynamic Subsetting, text set in three East Asian fonts could require a 30 MB download. Dynamic subsetting reduces the font to just the characters needed to render the page. In this example, the combined file size of three East Asian fonts could be shrunk to under 100K – only 0.3% of the original size. Without Dynamic Subsetting, Web fonts are almost off limits to Chinese, Japanese and Korean fonts.

With Dynamic Subsetting and Web fonts, it’s now possible to overcome several language support challenges that have existed since the dawn of the Web. International portals like Facebook, Twitter and Google can now leverage a variety of Unicode fonts to support world languages online without worrying about which system fonts exist on recipient computers. Another great example are Gaiji characters. Gaiji are non-standard characters that are found in people’s names in countries such as Japan, Taiwan and China. These characters are not available in standard character sets, but are very important for government agencies and large global enterprises. Web fonts which include these characters can be deployed to solve this problem. Similar problems can now be addressed with WGL4 fonts for Pan-European characters, Japanese Ruby characters, Chinese Bopomofo and Chinese Pinyin.

For the first time in the history of the Web, countless culturally and educationally important characters can finally move into the digital age. In these examples, Web fonts don’t just match the language support provided by system fonts, they exceed it, providing a new set of language support capabilities. Web fonts have arrived, and with Web Fonts web designers can now deliver better looking Web sites with improved language support. A truly beautiful global solution.

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