Thank you Microsoft!

I admit, this is not really a font production note. It’s about digital typography: about WPF and the ‘flow document’.
For ten years I have been dreaming of a document format which allows for high quality typography (like PDF) and at the same time keeps the document layout flexible to some degree (like HTML+CSS).
Being an avid reader who refuses to touch anything which is not printed and bound, I was intrigued by the idea of printing a book on demand back then.[1] If a book is printed on demand, I wondered, why not allow the reader to adjust the layout a little to meet his particular reading habits? For example, he may choose a smaller book size to read while traveling or choose larger margins to add some notes. But whatever the adjustments, the document format and reader software must ensure that typographic quality is preserved. So my conclusion was: It must be something like an enhanced PDF, and the only company who could do this is Adobe.
A description was sent around, then buried in a drawer for a year or two, and eventually published as Customized Digital Books on Demand / Issues in the Creation of a Flexible Document Format in Visible Language, 32.2, Rhode Island, 1998, pp 128–149.
This year, a presentation at TypoTechnica 2007 caught my special attention. It dealt with Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and had two or three slides about the brand new NY Times Reader which adjusts the layout (and even content) according to the size of the window in which the document is viewed. At the heart of this is WPF’s ‘flow document’.
Since WPF offers full OpenType support and maybe even something like a multi-line composer (an ‘optimal paragraph’ attribute), typographic quality is definitely on the agenda. This is more than the usual non-hyphenated, flush-left setting of HTML text in a web browser. That’s typography. Thanks!
The question is, what will Microsoft make out if it? So far it is possibilities rather than reality, none of Microsoft’s applications uses the merits of WPF’s extensive OpenType support or the new ‘flow document’.
And, as could be expected from Microsoft, the NY Times Reader as the first application of this new document format entirely addresses on-screen reading. Will Microsoft – or third-party developers drawing on WPF – realize that this technology also helps overcome the gap between documents designed for print and those designed for the screen?[2]
What’s missing is not only free reader software to display such documents, but also applications for the creation of such documents:
For example, a text editor which encourages (forces?) users to structure rather than design texts (which is what all current text editors do and what the .rtf format addresses).
For example, a layout application which helps designers create flexible, or ‘flow’, documents visually – many designers are afraid of code. This might be a challenging task: How to encourage designers to think of design abstractly? And what should a design tool look like so that it helps people create abstract designs (which is what ‘flow documents’ are about) visually, and at the same time represent these abstract designs in such a way that the designer can ‘see’ which parts of the design are abstract and which are not?
(My implication of labor division between authors/editors and designers is not accidental. With rare exceptions, authors are not designers, and designers are not authors.)
Musing ...
The idea of ‘flow documents’ could change the way we think of documents. Together with other ideas, like Mihai Nadin’s understanding of the computer as a ‘semiotic machine’, it could change the way we conceive of, and design, computers and their interfaces.
What is a ‘document’? One file? Or several information bits (text, image, sound, film) gathered and arranged when requested? Think of database-like organization of information bits, and think of a document as the instance which manages the visual representation of the information. (It appears that WPF comes very close to the insight that an application’s UI and a document are structurally the same.) What for, and thus how, do we actually use a computer? And how could the interface reflect this? Here, ‘interface’ does not refer to icon design and arrangement (cosmetic!) but to the underlying conception. I do not see that any of the mainstream operating systems, current and future versions alike, even touches these questions. So far, there is but a single approach which tries to challenge the concept of ‘a computer’ more radically. It is a laptop aiming at – children.[3]

Further reading

Roger Black’s review, of The New York Times’ online version of T. Especially see the last part about the NY Times Reader which is built on WPF.

23 July 2007

[1] Interestingly, this technology is still awaiting its breakthrough. Not for mass-market books, but for special interest books e.g. of the scholarly world. One may argue that it has been made obsolete by technologies like E-Ink. But rather than producing book-like items (for which promise Mr Jacobson won the Gutenberg-Preis a few years ago), E-Ink focuses on producing energy saving displays for handheld devices, with resolutions which may compete with other display technologies but not with print.
[2] More critical press reviews of Silverlight and WPF seem to regard these technologies as mere gimmicks. I feel inclined to think that Microsoft and its competitors themselves are responsible for this image. Silverlight and WPF as well as Adobe’s AIR are advertised with heavy emphasis on RIA. Microsoft’s Expression tools underline it. This provokes the understandable reaction, well, nice, but ‘enriching’ websites with flashy navigation tools and more animations does not necessarily add substance to them. I think that there is more to WPF than that. Yet I am not sure if Microsoft is aware of it. It looks like they did something big without recognizing it.
[3] It appears that Mr Negroponte is too obsessed with technology and ignores that it takes more than throwing laptops at children.[3.1] It requires teachers who demonstrate how to ‘read’ the underlying interface conception so pupils can make good use of it. In plain words: There is nothing like a universal visual language understood by everyone everywhere, and signs – including interfaces – are not self-explaining. (Unfortunately it is especially designers who love and spread this idea.) They require an initiation procedure, another word for this is: teaching. But this is an aside, and in no way criticism of the project per se. I like the project a lot and cannot await seeing the laptop and its interface. To my regret it is not yet available in Europe.
[3.1] Post scriptum, January 2012: Four years ago I feared that putting it like this may be too polemic. Now it turns out that reality is catching up, called “the real, hands-off, dropping-out-of-the-sky format”.

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© Karsten Luecke
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