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Despite its promise of horizonless opportunity, the web has proven to be a desert of diversity. Aside from a few diehard fringe-dwellers, the world uses one search engine, one encyclopedia, one video channel and one social networking site.

Typographically, the web has been equally limited. Web designers have been forced to use only those fonts which can be found on every computer – a short and dull list indeed. The visual landscape of the web has been largely contoured by Arial, Verdana, Georgia, Times New Roman and (shudder) Comic Sans.

Last week the Typo Berlin conference, a yearly love-in for the serif-obsessed, heard about a breakthrough that promises to bring greater typographic diversity to the web.

Google has announced the launch of its Font Directory, an open-source library of typefaces that can be added to any website. Rather than relying on fonts already installed on a user’s computer, the font will be ‘streamed’ to the website from the Font Directory.

The system is based on an existing web service called Typekit, which does the same thing but charges a fortune for it. Now Google has given a limited version of the program away for free. The Font Directory contains just 18 typefaces, yet that’s 18 more than we currently see on the web. To access a wider variety, designers must subscribe to Typekit.

There are problems: Different web browsers and operating systems display the fonts differently, and the Google Font Directory seems to have been designed primarily with Firefox in mind. For all those still stuck with Explorer, the web world is about to get uglier. But isn’t it time you abandoned that clunky old ship anyway?

Among the new fonts you should expect to see popping up on the web are the elegant and understated Volkorn and the versatile and handsome Droid Serif. There are also some hideous editions – I predict that Lobster, Reenie Beanie and Tangerine will soon be as reviled and ubiquitous as (shudder) Comic Sans (and its evil clone Chalkboard).

The irony of course is that the salvation of online typographic diversity has been provided by the very company which has so devastatingly monopolized the web…

By the way, anyone interested in typographic thrillers (a limited genre to be sure) might like to take a read of this old thing….