XXII.3 May - June 2015
Page: 24
Digital Citation

The Times New Roman lie

Jonathan Bean

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This is not a paean to a typeface. This is about how Chrome OS lies. On Black Friday 2014, I bought a Chromebook. I was not alone; Amazon reported that its top three notebooks of the holiday season were all Chromebooks. I've been a Mac user since I switched to a Mac SE from the Apple IIGS, where a pixelated Mavis Beacon taught me how to type, so I had some reservations, but I figured that since I was already backing up most of my work in the cloud and that most of my academic papers were coauthored using Google Docs, it wouldn't be too difficult of a transition. On top of that, my work-issued MacBook developed a serious love affair with the Spinning Beachball of Doom. After it took two minutes and 30 seconds to copy text out of a PDF and another 45 seconds to paste it into a Microsoft Word document, I spent the better part of the day knee-deep in Web forums. Finally, I gave up and dropped the computer off at the tech-support desk. The university's fantastic Mac technician couldn't figure it out, either: Neither new RAM nor a new hard-drive cable nor a new hard drive could keep the beachball away.

So when Amazon cut the price on the Chromebook by $50, I jumped. For $280, what did I have to lose?

That should have been a rhetorical question. Instead, the answer is Times New Roman.

Overall, the user interface on the Chromebook is good, though it does not surpass or even meet the standard set by Apple in the Jony Ive-Steve Jobs glory days. The first task was to wrangle the font sizes and default zoom on the computer's 1080p 13-inch "True HD" display into a state where I could read my email without a magnifying glass. That wasn't so bad: Open Settings; look for something about fonts; fail to find anything about fonts; search for fonts. Bingo: Settings for default font size and page zoom under the "Web content" subheading. Because almost everything on the screen of a Chromebook is rendered as a webpage, these controls change the size of almost everything displayed on the screen, including the text in the settings menu. Yet key UI elements, such as the tabs in the Chrome Web browser, remained just as squint-inducingly tiny as before, and there exists no mechanism to adjust their size.

Spurred on by my partial success and resigned to my reading glasses, I adventurously clicked a button titled "Customize Fonts." I was hoping to make Web pages look more familiar by changing the default fonts to Helvetica and Georgia, the same typefaces I was used to studying while the beachball made its frequent appearances on my Mac. This is when I first made acquaintance with the impostors Tinos and Arimo.

In Google's words, Tinos is "an innovative, refreshing serif design that is metrically compatible with Times New Roman" [1]. (It should not be surprising that Arimo is "an innovative, refreshing sans serif design that is metrically compatible with Arial.") Tinos, Arial, and the "innovative, refreshing" Courier New clone Cousine are the default fonts for Chrome OS. Perhaps by innovative and refreshing Google really means thin and light. On my Chromebook's 13.3-inch 1080p display, Tinos and Arimo are eye-strainingly skinny and faint, even scaled to 150 percent. I found Georgia in the list of available fonts and increased the default zoom to a level my 25-year-old self would have sneered at.

At the time of this writing, there is no workaround to generate a printed document using Times New Roman from a Chromebook.

But Tinos would return in a cunning disguise. Oddly, in Google Docs and even in Microsoft Word Online when used on a Chromebook, Times New Roman, Arial, and Courier New are listed as options in the font menu. In fact, I'm typing a draft of this column in "Times New Roman." Those quotation marks aren't a mistake, because the font displayed on my screen is not Times New Roman; it is—you guessed it—the slightly more square Tinos. The same kind of deception also happens when using Arial; the giveaway there is the shape of the lowercase a. Arimo's has a tail that is just a touch too long, disturbing the spacing between letters and screaming for kerning. Perhaps, I thought, saving the document to PDF would result in a file that would display the correct typeface. No dice. At the time of this writing, there is no workaround to generate a printed document using Times New Roman from a Chromebook.

The extent of this problem—which, because I have a working, if beachbally, non-Chrome OS computer, is merely an inconvenience—became apparent when I was using the Chromebook to finalize a manuscript for submission to an academic journal. Referring back to the submission guidelines, I noticed this line:

Font: 12 point, Times New Roman Uh oh. 12 point, Times New Roman. Not "12 point, Times New Roman or an innovative, refreshing, and metrically compatible typeface." Now, sure, there are a lot of ways the publisher could solve this problem, for example, by translating the strict page limitation into a character limit, but the trend is to push this work onto authors, and the submission guidelines culminated in an ominous warning about the rejection of noncompliant manuscripts. I would not be able to submit my work unless I went back to a Mac or Windows machine with Times New Roman installed. I suspect that Google's omission of the font that has become the standard for professional and educational communication has less to do with an ideological commitment to innovative and refreshing open-source fonts and more to do with the fact that Times New Roman is owned by Monotype, a business that makes money by selling and licensing fonts.

But what about the children? I'm not the only Chromebook user foiled by Times New Roman. Check out this post in the Google Product Forums:

"The Times New Roman font in Docs does not exactly match the Windows version. Teachers at my kids school are deducting points for using the 'wrong' font. I would have never noticed but the lowercase e and w are definitely different. Thoughts?" [2]

At first brush, I find it horrifying that teachers would deduct points for using the wrong font. But part of grade school is learning that it's important to follow the rules, and when top academic journals are specifying that manuscripts must be submitted in Times New Roman, it's hard to argue with the logic. So I don't think there is a direct link. I think it is more of an emergent phenomenon that is taking some ideas created 30 years ago and amplifying them via the Internet to reach a larger demographic.

And you can't even buy Times New Roman—not from Monotype, not from Google—for installation on a Chrome OS device. While there is a workaround, it involves putting the device into its less-secure developer mode, then using the Chrome OS command line to install the font after every restart. I'm having a hard time imagining that poor kid's parent bothering with a "solution" like this on a system where the central selling point is simplicity. For my part, I'd gladly pay Monotype's retail price of $29 to add this key piece of technology to my Chromebook.


This brings me back to the issue of interaction. When the forefront of the field is addressing wearable technology and confronting the challenge of sustainability, it might seem petty to pick on Google for omitting Times New Roman. But this is just as big of a usability issue as laggy scrolling and slow page-load times in Google Docs: To ignore Times New Roman is to ignore its role in the ecosystem of uses in which computing is embedded. If Google wants Chrome OS to be a viable replacement for Mac OS and Windows, it needs to be able to produce documents set in Times New Roman.

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Jonathan Bean is an assistant professor of markets, innovation, and design at Bucknell University. His research deals with domestic consumption, technology, and taste.

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Copyright held by author

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

@Michael (2016 02 12)

This has made me grow weary of Chromebooks and Google. I knew something was amiss and I now know that I was right.

@Selden Deemer (2016 06 27)

Google isn’t ignoring Times New Roman; it’s not available to them for an open source operating system like Chromium.

From my perspective, the problem lies entirely with your child’s school, and by raising it with them, you will help other children, not just yours. In my experience, K-12 bureaucrats can be exceedingly inflexible, but they aren’t stupid, and can be flexible when the problem is explained to them in terms they can understand.