Fonts, Linux, and adoption

By far the biggest problem with desktop Linux is that it faces many barriers that make it difficult for a user to adopt Linux. I think that if Linux is to ever gain more widespread adoption, these barriers have to be lowered.

Although there are many decisions I do not agree on Apple with, one of their biggest attractions has always been that “it just works”. Over the past couple of years, Apple has made more than a few mistakes and lately Apple seems to be getting worse on this front. However, their user friendly Mac operating system and ultimately the iPhone is what brought them back into the limelight after near bankruptcy. It is what made them so prominent to begin with. It’s not so much that Apple invented anything as much as it is that they integrated everything else that was invented into a very user friendly way, combined with aggressive marketing.

I believe that Linux has the potential to have a similar proposition. In fact, I think that Linux being open source has even more potential for an “it just works” type of operating system. Some Linux distros, such as Linux Mint have long emphasized their friendliness to new users and even for veteran Linux users, are an excellent choice as a daily driver.

So why do fonts matter so much? How can they help facilitate adoption?

I consider fonts to be a very big part of usability. Try reading something in a very easy to read font then try reading something in a font that should be avoided, such as Comic Sans MS.

Poor quality fonts can cause eyestrain. They can also affect the credibility of the text that the reader is reading. There is a huge reason to use a good font.

One of the problems that I see with fonts on Linux is that many distros often ship with a less than ideal font. What appears legible on perhaps the developer’s computer may not be for the end user. It can be difficult for someone from another operating system such as Windows or Mac OS X to migrate successfully to Linux. It is often stressed on Linux forums that “Linux is not Windows”. True, but that does not make it any easier for the end user to migrate. That is especially important considering how displays seem to be increasing with each new generation in terms of pixels per inch, particularly with the adoption of higher resolution displays. They are becoming more and more commonplace.

In the Linux world, Windows is often looked down upon. Whatever its other failings, I feel that Windows, shipping with a font called Segoe UI was a good decision because it is a very readable font. Windows has its own presentation on UI design in this regard.

A 2001 font study from the Wichita State Software Usability Research Laboratory on the reading speed of different fonts. Note the disparity between the worst and the best fonts. Source: Jeff Atwood

Why focus on fonts? It could very well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to Linux adoption because although Linux has gotten easier to learn and without as much need for complex drivers, there are still significant barriers for preventing desktop adoption. I also regard it as a shortcoming of existing Linux distros. I have seen too many people “give up” Linux in frustration due to one part of Linux or another.

With Open Source software, to facilitate adoption, I firmly believe that it should be made as easy as possible to facilitate adoption. Even amongst Linux users, the percentage using “advanced” distros is quite small and those whole compile their own distro, through Gentoo or Linux from Scratch is quite small indeed. By far the most popular are distros such as Linux Mint, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, and Mangeia, which emphasize usability first and foremost. Fedora, another very popular distro is at the bleeding edge of technology and is used by Linus Torvalds, the lead creator of the Linux Kernel.

Personally, I have always loved to tinker and I have spent some time researching how to obtain fonts that did not ship with the distro, then determining which font I loved best. Open Source does offer that freedom, as does the possibility of so many open fonts. Most people will not have that patience. Hence the default font that ships must be good.

Equally as important, users on a distro such as Linux Mint have the freedom to ask amateur questions on the forums without being dismissed as unintelligent (which sadly enough) happens frequently elsewhere in other distros. Currently (December 2016), Linux on the desktop is estimated to have a market adoption rate of approximately 1.5%. If that is to ever grow, then it must be easy for the end user to use.

Leaving people feeling like this character is the fastest way to get people to lose interest in Linux.

Today, the biggest barrier is that Linux does not come out of the box shipped in very many systems. If Linux is to gain adoption, then it must be as easy as possible for potential Linux users to adopt Linux quickly and painlessly. That means everything from easy installation to getting 100% set up to applications just as easy to use as other operating systems.

It is these little barriers that although they do not seem like much to an advanced user, they can be  the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back that caused a new user to abandon Linux. An advanced user will easily change the fonts. A not-so-advanced user will simply give up in frustration and conclude that Linux is difficult to read.

Certainly, the lure of Open Source Software (OSS) has many benefits over Closed Source Software, but if that famed “Year of the Linux Desktop”, where Linux marketshare suddenly explodes and becomes the dominant operating system, then it will happen on a distro that is very user friendly, that has taken into account the small details.

Recommendations for Linux distro developers

I would recommend by default using a font that has been well studied for legibility. Amongst the Microsoft fonts, Verdana might be a good recommendation for a default font, as it is regarded as the most hinted font of all time.  Georgia is also a very highly regarded font in that regard. At time of this writing, the default font of is Georgia.

At the moment, I personally am using Open Sans, which in my opinion has excellent legibility. It would be an excellent choice for a default font for a Linux distro.

I think that there needs to be a large-scale study of all the Open Source fonts, along with a list of recommendations on which fonts to ship by default.  It is especially important that the most popular distros ship with a user friendly font.

Furthermore, I think that there needs to be a “How do I” guide that is installed with the operating system on every OS. It could be in a wiki-like format or a PDF, but there needs to be one. Current documentation (see Linux Mint for example)  answers some of the basics, but I think needs to be expanded. There should be a simple guide and then a more advanced guide for users. There must also be the ability to find answers to specific questions inside very quickly.


I would love to see Linux someday thrive and succeed.

When an end-user first boots Windows or OS X on a computer that they purchased, their first though is not that the the font is difficult to read. I think that with some research and some standardization, this barrier could be overcome relatively easily for Linux, making it one step closer towards greater adoption.

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