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Font Standards
A font represents a collection of shapes organized in a well defined manner. In scalable fonts, the shapes are defined mathematically so that a shape can be scaled. The mathematical description of a shape is given in terms of a sequence of curves which form the outline of the shape. The shapes relate to the letters of the alphabet and special symbols used in print. 

Bit mapped fonts differ from scalable fonts in that the shapes are specified through bitmaps which are essentially digitized forms of the letter of the alphabet. Bit mapped fonts are specified through a matrix of ones and zeros giving one the impression of the shape when viewed at a proper distance. 

One important aspect of fonts is the Encoding method which relates the code of a character to a shape through appropriate naming conventions. Encoding specifies how a given code (the numerical value assigned to a letter of the alphabet, punctuation or special symbol) is to be mapped to a particular shape. Different encoding standards exist and the differences relate to the language (the alphabet corresponding to a language), the computer platform as well as the number of shapes recognized correctly.

Eight bit fonts permit upto 256 shapes to be specified but for several practical reasons, this set is restricted to about 180-220 shapes. The differences in Encoding usually result in text getting rendered differently on different systems though the Roman alphabet (English letters and punctuation) are more or less guaranteed to be displayed without error on most systems. This set corresponds to the standard 96 character ASCII.

Vagaries in font encoding as well as rendering often result in display of text that differs from the originally intended form. This is usually the result of fonts designed according to arbitrary encodings or that the system rendering text cannot properly handle the encoding. Systems based on Microsoft Windows follow one encoding while the MacIntosh, rich in its graphic features understands a totally different encoding which accommodates many more shapes. Unix systems have traditionally restricted displays to simple English (standard ASCII). With the introduction of X-Windows, Unix systems have provided Graphic support but have handled mostly the Latin Character set as a basic standard.

Fonts used in the Seventies and Eighties were essentially Bit Mapped until, the Truetype standard as well as the PostScript standard were introduced. During the eighties, Prof. Knuth had introduced TeX, a typesetting application which used high quality fonts defined through a standard devised by him called MetaFont. Metafont is an independent approach to defining fonts and accommodates almost a full complement of 256 shapes. Typesetting in Indian languages through TeX was popular in the eighties and continue to be used today since TeX has been ported to many different platforms.

These are the standards which have been in vogue for nearly two decades.

Bit mapped fonts (bdf standard)
Metafont (Introduced as part of TeX)
Portable Compiled Format (pcf on Unix Systems)
ISO-8859  Encoding standard for different European languages
MacIntosh Truetype fonts
MS Windows Truetype Fonts
Adobe PostScript Fonts (Used with Page Printing applications)
Fonts for Chinese, Japanese and Korean
Unicode Fonts 
OpenType Fonts

It may be noted that Fonts for Indian languages have never been standardized, for it has not been possible to specify a suitable encoding for any of the Indian languages. In the absence of suitable standards, it has not been possible to handle Indian language text on computer systems in a uniform manner. This is unlikely to change, for even among the scholars and professionals in India, there is little agreement on what should go into a standard for writing systems that are based on syllables rather than the letters of the alphabet.

Useful references on technical details of fonts.






Acharya Logo
Text in Brahmi script at the Gate of the Great Stupa at Sanchi. The text records the donation of the pillar by a desciple of Arya Kshudra. The text reads "aya chuDasa atevAsino balamitasa dAnam thabho". More information about the Brahmi script is presented under Languages and Scripts.

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