I have always loved books, and I have always appreciated good typesetting. Clear fonts, clean page layout, and a sense of style. And a good font can make a huge difference in terms of the readability of a document.
When I saw the first few screenshots of the Vista betas, Microsoft's latest version of Windows, I was particularly impressed with the new default system font. It was very clean, rounded, nicely anti-aliased and very readable. Digging a little deeper I was surprised to find some of the dubious history regarding Microsoft and fonts.
But first, let us rewind to Windows 3.1. When Microsoft introduced TrueType, it chose to license Arial instead of Helvetica as the standard sans-serif font, apparently as a cost-cutting measure. It turns out that Arial is a cheap substitute for (some say poor imitation, even ripoff of) Helvetica, a very highly regarded modern sans-serif font.
Arial is nearly identical to Helvetica (the lowercase 'a' for example), although it has been altered subtly to work better on screen. Yet many typographers see it as a scourge, or a "shameless impostor".
Helvetica has a rich history, created by the Haas Foundry of Switzerland, later acquired by Linotype. Since then, it has endured many imposters. Arial itself was developed by Monotype, although they were certainly not the only foundry to develop their own 'flavour' of Helvetica.
Alas, now typographers and graphic artists lament Microsoft's choice, as Arial has become one of the most widely used fonts on the planet. Yet it is criticised for being ugly, inconsistent, and poor at print reproductions. (Since it was optimized for the screen, this is not entirely surprising.)
Further reading - more history and details on Arial:
Fast forward: Segoe
Now that the new Office 12 and Windows Vista are nearing release, Microsoft has been widely touting the new look, including the new system font Segoe (pron. "see-go"). It is certainly a very attractive font, a significant improvement over the default look in Windows XP.
However even Segoe is not without its own controversy. It turns out that Segoe bears an uncanny resemblance to Linotype's Frutiger Next. The similarities are more than superficial, according to experts. Indeed, the European Union's Trademark and Design Office rejected Microsoft's attempt to register the font designs, after Linotype protested. Microsoft first attempted to cast doubt on Linotype selling Frutiger prior to 2004, but then later did not contest that they could be considered identical. The review that struck down the 8 claims held that the letter forms "differ only in minor details".
The original Frutiger was designed from scratch in 1968 by Adrian Frutiger for all the signage new Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. It was designed for clarity, recognition and legibility from a distance. Frutiger Next was a revised edition, released in 2000, expanding and enhancing the original classic, and improving the italics (the original featured slanted forms of the oblique version). A variation of Frutiger was selected in 2003 as the signage font to replace all the traffic signs in Switzerland.
Microsoft licensed Segoe from Monotype, and adapted it for the screen. The original Monotype designer explicitly states the font was not derived from Frutiger. However, there appears to be more similarities than differences, and questions still remain.
Fonts have always been in the grey area of law. Blatant copying and derived or "inspired" works between foundries have been widespread, as history shows. The legal protection seems to amount to copyright over the file, trademark of the name, and registration over the design. Sadly, few computer users appreciate the talent and effort that goes into font design, and widespread illiegal copying between users continues unabated. But it seems the companies involved are not squeaky clean themselves. So it really does ring hollow when Microsoft pursues even stronger copyright and patent laws in jurisdictions such as Europe and China, when it comes to protecting their own Windows and Office sales.
Is Microsoft's Vista Font Just a Copy?: includes comparisons and images
Designer says Vista Font is Original: discusses more of the legal issues
Wikipedia entry on Frutiger
Wikipedia entry on Segoe