Adobe's announcements today (the Source Code monospaced family joins the Source Sans family as open source releases, and Google is collaborating with Typekit on the Edge Web Font service, with more than 500 open source web fonts) seem to have stirred up a fair amount of comment on Twitter. I thought it might be useful to provide a forum for more than "sound bites".
I appreciate concerns that offering anything for free risks cheapening the category. And I agree with those who consider the majority of free or open source fonts mediocre in design and technical quality. (I'm not trying to speak for Adobe or anyone else here.) What I'd like to point out is that there are different reasons for releasing open source fonts. You may agree with some and disagree with others.
I was recently at an event where an open source evangelist suggested that because open source fonts are useful, that justifies creating open source designs that are similar to popular faces whose owners don't want to open source them. I strongly disagree; I don't consider open source an excuse to abuse people's intellectual property. There are other similar points in the open source space that seem similarly ill-thought-out to me.
On the other hand, there are times when free fonts have the potential to do something positive. One example is the Source families. Adobe developed Source Sans and now Source Code and released them as open source because some of Adobe's open source products needed a good UI family (Source Sans) and coding family (Source Code). They couldn't use fonts that weren't open source, and we weren't happy with the existing options. Having released these as open source, lots of developers are invested in their success and have given us great feedback as well as offers to help us grow the fonts' coverage more quickly. Needless to say, that's a different kind of reaction than we get with our commercial releases.
Another example is the Edge Web Fonts service. Because it's hooked into the other Edge tools it makes it easier than ever for developers to integrate web fonts into their designs. At the same time, this is a limited set aimed largely at headline uses. Like many free offerings it's a gateway to broader web font use, where the developers can get a far richer selection by ponying up at commercial web font services. It's also worth noting that the Edge Web Fonts are constrained to web font use. Many of the fonts are also available on the Google Web Font service (where they can be used anywhere), but others are available on the desktop only with commercial licenses. We're curious to see what kind of purchasing traffic this may drive as web designers want desktop fonts for mock-ups.
On the technical side, I'll note the Typekit folks have been putting a bunch of work into the Edge Web Fonts that came to that collection from Google Web Fonts. This raises the level of quality (a common objection) and benefits both services.
Bottom line: Even type isn't black & white ;-) Consider the context!