It Is About Time We Create Standardized and Internet-Ready Urdu Fonts

With broadband subscriptions reaching an all-time high and 3G/4G usage rising at a rapid pace, Pakistan is going through a period of meteoric internet growth. Mobile internet users have crossed 26 million mark in Pakistan and loads of Pakistani websites are popping up every day to meet the local demand.

Demand for Local Online Content in Urdu is High

The internet has tons of stuff, be it for knowledge or entertainment needs, and with internet usage levels amongst Pakistanis rising, the demand for localized content is at an all-time high. What our internet is missing is the impact of content in our national language, Urdu.

Reading and viewing content in English is hard for most of the people worldwide where it is not the native language, especially more in Pakistan. Over 40 percent of Pakistani adults are illiterate and most of the remaining 60 percent have little understanding of the English language, the de facto language of the internet.

Getting online content in local languages can reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots considerably. Plus it can also encourage the use of internet by more and more people in Pakistan.

The availability of newspapers and TV content in the national and regional languages is one of the reasons why they have been so successful and maintained their supremacy in this day and age. It is natural to prefer content in one’s mother tongue, no matter where anybody is in the world.

Issues faced by Content Creators Currently

The problem faced by content creators is the lack of support for the Urdu language. While there has been breakthroughs enabling coders to write code using Right-to-left languages, it is still far from becoming mainstream. Despite the hurdles, developers still manage to put out enough products and services in Urdu, but with increasing demand this might not hold true in the future.

Media content creators, while small in number upload lots of content, but access to it is limited thanks to English-only websites. Google does offer Urdu versions of its websites which, while mediocre in translation, still face greater problems when it comes to its search engine and its limited Urdu support. the same goes for Facebook.

The same goes for Facebook. The rest of the internet, however, is still in English.

As far as written content goes, there is only one major website on the internet that does Urdu justice. It comes up amongst the top 5 websites in Pakistan and the top 500 in the world. Alexa rates at 5th position in Pakistan under its ‘Top Sites in Pakistan’ list. There are a few more websites in Urdu language but they aren’t as easy to read.

The cause of the problem is the lack of Urdu fonts for the web. While there are a few fonts that are being used by a couple of websites, they are by no means a match for a high-quality font like Jameel Noori Nastaleeq or Lahori Alvi.

The aforementioned fonts are often used by magazines, newspapers and documents. They are easy on the eye and make reading very pleasant.

A common person would ask, why not use the same fonts for the web? The answer to that is, these fonts are huge in size. Each web page would be 10MB to 40MB in size if these high-quality fonts were to be used. Increase in size reduces a web page’s performance, increasing loading times. Google search algorithms also tend to reduce a website’s search rank if it has slow loading speeds; a reason which puts Urdu websites at a major disadvantage.

A workaround is to have these fonts installed on a user’s PC or mobile device. Which is impossible unless companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google and others incorporate these fonts in their hardware and software natively that is.

The internet relies on five types of fonts. These are listed below:

  • TrueType Font (TTF) – Old format with large file sizes. Compatible with Internet Explorer version 9.0 and above, Chrome starting at 4.0, Firefox at 3.5, Safari since 3.1 and Opera beginning with 10.0
  • OpenType Font (OTF) – Old format with large file sizes. Has the same browser compatibility as the TrueType Font
  • Web Open Font Format (WOFF) – Newer format with small file sizes. Supported by Internet Explorer version 9.0 and above, Chrome starting at 5.0, Firefox at 3.6, Safari since 5.1 and Opera beginning with 11.1
  • Web Open Font Format 2.0 (WOFF2) – Latest format with the smallest file sizes. Supported only by Chrome since version 36.0, Firefox starting at 35.0 and Opera with 26.0
  • Embedded OpenType Font (EOT) – Old format with small file sizes. Exclusively available for Internet Explorer version 6.0 and above.

The Web Open Font Format (WOFF) has become the web standard for quite some time as these fonts are compressed and require less bandwidth. They also contain extra metadata. However, these fonts aren’t always available and sometimes TTF and OTF fonts have to be converted to these formats, but the conversion doesn’t always work. High quality Urdu fonts are only available in OTF and TTF formats and cannot be converted to other formats due to technical reasons.

Google and Adobe have the biggest font repositories in the WOFF and WOFF2 formats. There are, however, very few Right-to-Left fonts and those are only for the Arabic language.

Concluding Thoughts

The solution to the problem is that Pakistani designers and developers need to come up with some good and web-optimized fonts for the Urdu language. It is a vacant space in the market and the developers can take advantage of this opportunity. Website creators would probably not mind getting paid licenses if they are offered some high-quality fonts. The number of Urdu websites has been on a constant rise and the only thing keeping them from going forward are the less than adequate fonts which make reading very hard.

An increase in Urdu content viewership and Urdu fonts will definitely open more doors in the language’s adoption rate. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other web giants will put more effort in molding their services for languages like Urdu and content creation could get much more simple.

Edit: We would like to clarify that a few Urdu fonts are indeed available with relatively small file sizes, close to about 200KB in size. But, these fonts are of a far lower quality compared to the high-quality fonts mentioned above (e.g Jameel Noori Nastaleeq). High-quality fonts are used in offline content like books, magazines and newspapers but are not available for web content. Most of the English web content can use fonts with sizes ranging 5KB to 75KB using the WOFF2 format. Such small file sizes are not available for Urdu fonts, hence increasing page loading duration and putting Urdu websites at a disadvantage in search results.

He is the Editor at ProPakistani.