Microsoft Reader Uses ClearType Technology and Traditional Typography to Enhance On-Screen Reading
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 30, 1999 — The printed page has changed little during the past 550 years since the printing press was invented. It hasn’t needed to. Letters are typically printed in black ink on white paper. Text usually is presented in justified blocks with wide left and right margins. And words are spaced proportionally to make them easy to read. It all works very well.
Yet as information has begun to shift from the printed page to the computer screen, those rules frequently have been ignored. There is often low contrast between the text and the computer screen on which it’s displayed, letters are sometimes poorly defined or distorted, and poor spacing between letters and words makes on-screen text less readable.
“The truth is that we built the writing software before we built the reading software,” said Dick Brass, Vice President of Technology Development at Microsoft. “On-screen reading for books and long documents has been painful. And as a result we’ve generated not a paperless office, but more paper use in the office than ever before.
Hoping to radically improve the on-screen computer reading experience, Microsoft this week announced new software specifically aimed at making text on the computer screen easier to read. The software, called Microsoft Reader, is designed to make the process of on-screen reading more natural. It is the first application to employ Microsoft’s ClearType font-enhancing technology for much sharper, print-like pages. And it goes beyond conventional computer display practices by adhering to the formatting conventions perfected in printed materials over the last several centuries.
Microsoft announced the software at Seybold San Francisco ’99, a weeklong publishing conference. The company plans to make the software available on Windows-based PCs and laptops beginning early next year.
“I think this is going to jump-start electronic books and periodicals,” Brass said. “I think it’s going to overcome the two biggest barriers that eBooks have: 1) that until now paper has been a superior medium, and 2) that until now there’s been no ubiquitous standard software to create a large market for electronic reading that encourages publishers to make a large number of titles available.”
Throughout the 20th century, futurists have predicted that the computer screen would become the primary medium for reading. Early in the century, for example, H.G. Wells was writing about electronic books. In the 1960s, Star Trek characters were walking around with eBooks. And in the 1970s and 1980s, talk of a paperless office became as widespread as the personal computer.
Despite the predictions, the electronic book business has failed to take off. And the primary obstacle, according to Brass, is that reading on screen has required too much effort.
“The vision of a paperless office was a big thing in the ’70s and ’80s, but it never happened-it was a bust,” Brass said. “And one of the reasons it was a bust is that people don’t like to read on the screen, because it’s not as comfortable as reading on paper.”
In an effort to understand why computer screens are so difficult to read, Microsoft researchers spent the last two years sifting through a large amount of research in both typography and the psychology of reading. They concluded that reading is a form of pattern recognition. Readers become immersed in a book only when word recognition is a subconscious task and the conscious mind is free to read the text for meaning. And word recognition is only subconscious when typographical elements such as margins, the shape and thickness of letters, and the spacing between characters work together to present words as easily recognized patterns.
“For example, a ragged right margin creates a distracting pattern in itself that interferes with your ability to read smoothly,” Brass said. “Typographers have understood this for centuries, and for at least the last 200 years almost all well-crafted books have been right-justified.”
The problem with reading on the computer is that both screen resolution and formatting are inferior to that of the printed page, Brass continued. Type on computer screens looks grainy, and rules of typography have mostly been overlooked, turning word recognition into a conscious instead of an unconscious task.
“There are many problems with reading on a computer screen,” Brass said. “First, the resolution of the screen doesn’t approximate the resolution of a well-printed paper page. Second, the conventions of computer displays-lots of icons, ragged right columns, arbitrary spacing and, in general, a fair amount of indifferent layout-has made an on-screen read inferior to a paper read.”
Microsoft Reader will address these obstacles, returning word recognition to the seamless task that it should be, Brass said. The software is the first product to incorporate ClearType, a Microsoft font technology that improves resolution on Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screens up to three-fold. By incorporating ClearType and other reading software technologies, Microsoft Reader will elevate screen-type resolutions to clarity near that of printed type, Brass said. And by using traditional good typography, like proper margins and spacing, the software will make reading on the screen a less conscious task, allowing readers to read for meaning rather than struggle to recognize words.
“With Microsoft Reader, we employ ClearType to improve resolution, and we pay strict attention to good typography to make the best presentation possible,” Brass said. “Combined, these things create an on-screen reading experience that for the first time is quite comparable to paper.”
While the software will be ideal for reading books and long documents, customers will be able to use it to read any document on the screen, Brass said. In addition to a clean, uncluttered display that mirrors the printed page, Microsoft Reader will offer tools to create bookmarks, highlight text and search for words and key phrases. It will also include a built-in dictionary as well as a “library” that stores and manages a large collection of books and other documents.
“It is the dawn of the age of the eBook,” said Steve Riggio, vice chairman of Barnes & Noble. “The Microsoft Reader will vastly improve the readability of content on PCs and laptops and bring it to an installed base of millions of readers.”
Microsoft Reader is part of a broader effort by Microsoft to spearhead the transition from reading on paper to reading on screen. Last year, the company released its breakthrough ClearType font-rendering technology, which improves screen readability on today’s relatively low-resolution computer screens. Microsoft is also building typefaces customized for ClearType, and is working with more than 40 industry leaders and publishers to promote an Open eBook standard. The standard will eventually allow any eBook to be downloaded onto any hardware device, overcoming an incompatibility problem that has prevented customers from receiving content not developed specifically for their reading device.
“We want publishers to be able to format their titles in a single way so that it won’t be necessary to format each book for every device and every reading software program out there,” Brass said. “By adhering to Open eBook standards, publishers can format the content once and it will be readable on all major eBook devices or with all major eBook software.”
Using the computer as the basis for reading opens up numerous opportunities for future enhancements, Brass said. Readers will be able to store a whole library of books on a single device no larger than a single paperback novel. They’ll be able to search for specific information or look up words while they read. They’ll be able to download any book they want from the Internet any time they want it. People with visual impairments will be able to adjust the size of text to meet their needs. And people who are blind will be able to turn on an audio feature to have the book read aloud.
Consumers and businesses will be able to greatly reduce the amount of storage space reserved for books and large documents, Brass said. And the whole infrastructure required to produce books will be far less expensive, ultimately reducing the cost of books for consumers.
“We’re on the verge of a fundamental change,” Brass said. “It’s not Star Trek anymore. It’s really going to happen.”
With the major obstacle to reading electronically nearly solved, Brass predicts that more than half of all book titles will be sold electronically within the next 15 years. “Once this ball starts rolling, it’s going to roll faster and harder than people suspect,” Brass said. “And Microsoft Reader is the beginning of that roll.”