Google Wants To Control Every Character You Type

Imagine a typeface that unites all the world’s languages. A publisher could print a book in Arabic, Cherokee, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and more—all without swapping out fonts.

That’s what Google is attempting to accomplish with Google Noto, a free font family that currently supports 96 languages, and aspires to support them all. Noto stands for “no tofu,” where tofu are what font professionals call those empty white boxes that appear when a character isn’t supported in a typeface.

Started in 2012, the Noto font family now spans 100,000 characters. This month, Google partnered with Adobe to release a new collection of fonts—Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean—which can be used separately or bundled together in one file so a writer can switch between languages without switching to another font.

This isn’t the first time a technology organization has made an effort to universalize the world’s fonts. In 1987, the Unicode Consortium began developing a way to make computer type compliant with global languages. The result was the Unicode Standard, a system of character codes designed to eventually represent every character in every language on Earth.

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Unicode Standard wasn’t really adopted by Web browsers until 2008, and still isn’t a complete solution for capturing all the nuances of global languages in a culturally sensitive way. It was designed with character universality in mind, not particular languages. So the playing field is still ripe for a new global typeface. Whether Google is the right team to take the field, however, is debatable. 

Pakistani-American writer Ali Eteraz told NPR that he isn’t sure a massive software company like Google is the right steward for the project: “I tend to go back and forth. Is it sort of a benign—possibly even helpful—universalism that Google is bringing to the table? Or is it something like technological imperialism?”

In other words, when Google is the only entity making decisions, critics fear that the actual language speakers left out of the process are the ones who suffer. Critics already have found issues with Noto’s handling of Urdu, which they say incorrectly adopts Arabic characters. 

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Google has already taken on an enormous effort, but one way it could attempt to improve cultural sensitivity toward global languages would be to support languages that even Unicode has overlooked. NPR used the example of Nastaʿlīq Urdu, a type of calligraphic script used in famous Urdu poetry. Right now, the only way to share it online is through image files.

Google Noto has already made strides toward not only supporting common modern languages, but minority and historical ones too. While supporting such languages will require extensive research and development, it’s the only way to truly achieve Noto’s ultimate goal of “visual harmonization across languages.”

Photo courtesy of NASA

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