For the majority of the Web's history, Web designers were limited to "Web safe fonts," which was a short list of vanilla fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman, and Verdana. These were the fonts that could be reasonably expected to be installed on 99% of computers, and could be relied up to be displayed consistently across machines. If you wanted text to look at all out of the ordinary, you were forced to rely on images, Flash, or other non-text approaches.
CSS3 aimed to change that with the introduction of @font-face, a means to embed font files into your site. The logic is flawless -- if you supply the font file yourself, you can count on it to be there for all of your site's visitors. This small change sparked big changes in the typography business. Last fall, Typekit launched as a platform to choose from a large number of professional fonts, and embed them into your site for little to no money (depending on your choice of font and number of page views). In May, Google Font Directory launched. This font library was smaller that Typekit, but its fonts were open source, meaning they could be used freely on the Web and in print. The concept of open source came late to the font world, but it being driven forward by Google, The League of Moveable Type, and many other groups.
The next chapter of the story began today, as Monotype Imaging launched its Fonts.com Web Fonts platform. Monotype now offers over 7,500 high-quality fonts for Web use, including big names such as Helvetica, Frutiger, and Univers. This launch represents another big step forward for Web fonts. Monotype Imaging is a big-name font house, with a huge catalog to choose from. Helvetica is a much-famed font (so much so that it inspired a full-length feature film).
Today, the phrase "Web fonts" means so much more than it did five years ago. It no longer refers to a underwhelming and uninspired list of "safe" fonts. Now it refers to a rich library of choices, which is expanding, and in some corners, embracing open source. Typography-minded designers have been empowered to create to their heart's content, while having absolutely no negative impact on SEO. Nothing is lost in images or Flash files. The text is text, as it should be.