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Open letter: the end of the line.

OPEN LETTER: THE END OF THE LINE To: Bill Gates Chairman, Microsoft

Dear Bill,

At Fall Comdex, we dropped in on your side-by-side demonstration of Word for Windows and Word for Presentation Manager, Microsoft's new entries in the graphical word processor sweepstakes. As we expected, the two versions made a convincing case for your multi-platform development strategy. We suspect users will be delighted to find they can move from a Windows application to its PM counterpart and (eventually) to the Mac without learning a brand-new interface.

But we also noticed a small but disturbing phenomenon. Despite indentical text, identical ruler settings and identical fonts, the line breaks in your two sample Windows and PM documents frequently fell at different points. As a result, a fair number of paragraphs ended up a line longer or shorter in one version as compared to another.

Curiously, not many people even noticed these mysterious little glitches. But unstable line breaks are an important symptom of a larger problem: the recent proliferation of incompatible font imaging models. Font imaging--loosely defined as the system-level technology that draws, measures, and positions letters on the screen--has been one of those arcane subjects that most developers and users try to ignore. Now, however, you've produced (albeit accidentally) a very concrete example of why font imaging and document stability are going to become a critical issue for virtually the whole software industry.

The basic problem, of course, is that there is no universal font imaging standard that has been accepted by the promoters of different graphical environments. Thus, each environment uses its own algorithms and metrics for calculating how much text fits on a single line. The differences in these calculations are often very subtle, but there's a domino effect that quickly cascades through a whole document. A small variation in character widths may bump one word to another line, the paragraph word wrap adds a line or two to the page, the extra lines force a graphic to move to a new page--and suddenly a carefully construed document ends up completely scrambled.

Font imaging isn't just a Windows-PM incompatibility problem, either. Earlier this year, you cut a technology-sharing deal with Apple that was supposed to create a common font standard for PM and the Mac. But Apple is already working on a new Layout Manager feature for System 7.0 to kern text and perform other advanced linesetting functions. As a result, line breaks will be different between the Mac and PM--and also between System 7.0 platforms and machines running earlier System versions.

To complicate matters a bit more, Adobe's Display PostScript--the font imaging model you and Apple have rejected--has won significant support among workstation vendors, particularly those who target document-creation and publishing markets. Display PostScript has been licensed for the NeXT machine, IBM's new RT workstations, and DEC's Ultrix systems; it may become a component of the OSF Motif environment as well.

The bottom line is that font imaging is turning into a jungle. The system-level incompatibilities in font imaging mean that applications developers can't guarantee document stability when users move text from one environment to another. It's nice that you (and others with multi-platform products) can offer common graphical interfaces and even portable file formats. But hardcopy output--the final "published" product that most users create--is still largely platform-dependent.

Unfortunately, we don't see a quick fix for this problem. More than ever, graphical environments are competing for the support of developers and users by offering increasingly sophisticated typographical features. There's almost no chance, we believe, that any platform vendor--including your own company--will accept a truce based on a single lowest-common-denominator imaging standard.

Worse, the industry's lack of sensitivity to the document stability issue is bound to send a misleading message to users. Right now, it's widely believed that the only tough problem in document portability is how to make all printers behave alike. For instance, Apple recently proclaimed that, "with a single font standard to support, PC and Macintosh computers will be able to print an identical page using different printers." Sorry, folks, Apple doesn't have "a single font standard" any more, and the new standard will only work on machines with at least 2MB of memory.

What the industry needs, clearly, is an advocate who can raise the visibility of true document portability as the next great challenge for developers of multi-platform systems. And you're the obvious candidate for the job. After all, microsoft largely calls the shots for system-level standards on the PC, and your applications division has a major presence in the Macintosh, Windows, and PM markets. We can't think of anybody else with as much authority or leverage, or any greater commitment to multi-platform standards.

Bill, this is an issue that badly needs your leadership. You've already helped convince the industry about the value of portable interfaces, portable code, and portable applications. Now we hope you'll start talking about the final missing piece--portable documents.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Soft-letter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:to Microsoft Chmn Bill Gates
Publication:Soft-Letter
Date:Jan 10, 1990
Words:821
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