The next version of Microsoft Office is about to go (semi)public

Type designer Thomas Phinney posts in his blog that Microsoft Office 2010, due to be released as a “technical preview” in July, will make a giant leap forward in its handling of typefaces: it will begin to support some (not all, by a long way) of the many advanced typesetting capabilities built into modern fonts (a standard known as OpenType, which I’ll expand on later in this post).

Current versions don’t support these features at all, which seriously limits how far you can go in creating professional-looking typeset copy with Word or Microsoft Office Publisher. That’s why a book or a brochure produced using Word or Publisher never quite looks right. There’s a subtle amateurishness that isn’t the fault of the author; it’s built into the way the program handles type. That’s why this may be Really Good News for business and professional users who are willing to invest some time learning what these features are and how to turn them on. Apparently they will all be off by default, and it remains to be seen how well the new features will be implemented.

For those who don’t know, OpenType is the current standard for computer typefaces. Unlike earlier computer fonts, the same OpenType fonts work equally well on a Mac, Windows or Linux system. Almost all of the fonts that ship with the Mac, Windows or Office today are OpenType, so that people can send a document to a colleague or client without worrying about what type of computer he or she is using.

But OpenType goes a long way beyond mere compatibility. Whereas older font technology was very limited in the number of different character shapes (known as “glyphs”) that could coexist in a single font file, an OpenType font can contain multiple language alphabets and a huge assortment of numbers, fractions, special decorative (“swash”) versions of capital letters, and more. OpenType fonts can automatically adjust type in subtle ways that make it more readable and more professional… IF it’s being handled by a program such as Adobe InDesign that understands these features. The simple bottom line is that right now you can’t get to any of these extra characters or features with an OpenType-oblivious program like Word or Publisher. That’s why this is all potentially exciting news for consultants, engineers, doctors and other non-design professionals who nevertheless need to look professional in print.

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