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November 22, 1998

WHAT IS CLEARTYPE AND WHY SHOULD ANYONE CARE?

By CBR Staff Writer

It’s still far from clear what it was that Bill Gates announced last Sunday night at Comdex (CI No 3,540), but typographers and font specialists have been making some pretty shrewd guesses. Microsoft’s own PR says its new ClearType font technology addresses the area beyond the traditional pixel boundary, and that with ClearType, letters on the computer screen appear smooth, not jagged. In an interview with Associated Press, Gates did not elaborate much: What ClearType does is, it takes readability off a color LCD to a dramatically new level, he said, if your threshold was that you were willing to read one screenful with what you’ve got today, you’ll be willing to read 10 screenfuls in future. Many assumed that Microsoft had merely reinvented anti-aliasing, a font technology that improves the appearance of characters by smudging the curves. The company, however, has explicitly stated that ClearType is not just anti-aliasing by another name. The transcript of Gates’ Comdex keynote has Microsoft Research Labs guru Bill Hill observing that: The problem is that we really need to be able to read at fairly small type sizes, 9 point, 10 point, 11 point, and 12 point. And if you look at what happens when you use anti-aliasing at those sizes it really is no solution. There’s an alternative theory on what ClearType actually is. Pixels on color LCD screens are made up of three colored rectangles. These are stacked side by side, like books on a shelf, to form a single square pixel. ClearType could, in theory, cut the pixels into vertical thirds for better resolution, at least on the horizontal scale. This would work well for Western alphabets, though it would be less effective for Chinese and Japanese ideographs and so on. Is this what Gates meant when he said ClearType would be particularly effective on color LCD screens? It certainly sounds like what Bill Hill is getting at when he writes, on the Microsoft web site, that: We discovered a new technology to unlock the true resolution of the color LCD screen, which is actually three times better than anyone ever realized, because we’ve always assumed the pixel was the smallest unit we could effectively address. We can’t be sure that this is what ClearType does, however, because Microsoft didn’t return our calls. We’ll keep trying.

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