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OpenType typography is the font world’s biggest development for many years.

OpenType font technology brings us richer typography, full multilingual support, and an entirely cross-platform typeface format.

But it is worth remembering that OpenType isn’t actually that new, it has just taken a long time to become properly accepted.

For a while, OpenType was stuck in a ‘chicken and egg’ situation; it hadn’t been in great demand because most mainstream applications didn’t support it well, and that was because - wait for it - it wasn’t in great demand. From the other side of things, creating OpenType fonts means significantly more work for typographers. Until the majority of professional-level applications - the ones used by people who care enough to pay for decent type - supported OpenType well enough, there was little incentive for them to put in the extra work.

So is OpenType necessary? When PostScript was invented in the 1980s, typography became much more accessible than ever before. Anyone could set and print type in whatever face they cared to buy. It wasn’t all sweetness and light, however. Working with extended character sets (whether for complex languages or simply for using so-called ‘expert’ font sets for small caps and decorative characters) meant juggling multiple font files. And because the user had to know how and where to use these hard-to-access elements, high-quality typography was difficult to achieve.

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This is where the benefits of using OpenType become clear. It is perfect for languages with complex scripts; Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Korean, and so on. It is also wonderful for putting expert character sets such as swashes and more at a designer’s fingertips. But all this doesn’t work unless your applications know how to ask the fonts for these extras; without OpenType awareness the fonts are no better than standard old-fashioned PostScript or TrueType versions.

Fortunately, in the last few years or so a number of well-known developers have been adding OpenType awareness to their repertoire. Adobe InDesign, Illustrator CS and Softpress Freeway are among the only applications that can exploit OpenType fully, but Photoshop 6.0 onwards gives some access to creative features. Less design-oriented software such as Microsoft Office, Nisus Writer, and the humble TextEdit concentrate on using OpenType for handling complex language scripts, where there are far, far more combinations of characters or word symbols than can be accommodated by normal fonts, let alone regular keyboards.

Support isn’t universal just yet. Macromedia’s FreeHand remains unable to take advantage. QuarkXPress remained aloof for many years, but QuarkXPress 7 is, finally, fully OpenType-capable. Those that don’t support it now almost certainly will do in the future, whether for linguistic reasons or for typographic finesse.

Most OpenType-ready applications offer relatively basic design-oriented options; ligature settings of ‘default, none, or all’ is normal for word processing-level software; their options are set by keyboard and input method settings. Others take this much further, with choices for enabling and disabling common ligatures, special ligatures (‘ct’, ‘st’, and similar), intelligent superscript, subscript and contextual fractions, type ornaments, oldstyle (non-ranging) figures, numerous ‘variant’ sets for type design alternatives, and on and on.

Whether you’re a designer or deal with non-Roman language sets, your life is being made easier by OpenType’s adoption. And type designers both big and small can feel confident that time spent on making rich OpenType faces won’t be wasted.

In OpenType-aware applications the standard contextual substitution and positioning features come into play. Depending on the selected keyboard layout and input method you’re using your keystrokes can generate just about everything that you need.

Many languages which aren’t based on the Roman alphabet rely heavily on context for choosing the right character and word shapes. The glyphs in these fonts can be selected based on the others around them, their position in the sentence, and the placement of nearby characters as well. Some forms of Arabic script use a slanted baseline for individual words, so even something as basic as placement on a line can be more than a more basic font can handle.

Common and rare ligatures can be substituted where their component parts appear. Even more importantly, if character spacing is expanded past a given point, whether directly or through justification, the ligatures can be decomposed for you back to their individual parts, and behaviour can be different at different type sizes as well.

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