Æsthetics and usability go hand in hand. Because many people are visual beings, they function better when they work in a beautiful environment. And that extends to computing. So those two go together.
In typography this is pretty obvious whenever you’ve got to use (even for a short while) a Windows machine: Cleartype, now the default anti-aliasing technique employed by Microsoft, is a hideous, ugly and largely unusable (to me at least) hinting/anti-aliasing technique used by Redmond that’s supposed to make text more legible. I’m writing ‘supposed’ because it doesn’t (at least for me); it never did, but in the process it does succeed into making text look extremely ugly.
What’s surprising is not that Microsoft is not ‘getting’ it. No, that’s pretty well known; it’s no accident that Apple has gone with a much more reasonable approach in OS X (which is, to my eyes, equally legible, but far more beautiful). Which is why you can actually have far superior hinting and still retain the original glyphs, as is evidenced by Adobe’s Reader. Which is why even freetype provides excellent anti-aliasing [even if it's still bugridden and at the same time many linux distributions insist on turning on full-hinting, probably the worst choice they could make].
What is really surprising here is this:
Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer will default in some cases to using ClearType rendering. Some applications that use fonts tuned for ClearType and not bi-level rendering may choose ClearType rendering to maintain the benefits of the font designs. Some applications need higher precision glyph widths like sub-pixel positioning or “natural width ClearType,” and would reflow if they were changed to bi-level or grayscale rendering. Other applications like Adobe Reader have their own built-in text rendering engine that is independent of the Windows graphics platforms. Likewise, platforms like Java on Windows also use their own rendering techniques.
Ok, so you can have applications that have their own rendering engines and don’t want to do anything with ClearType (understandable). But having everyday applications such as Internet Explorer or Office applications being capable of overriding user preferences, only because Microsoft insists on doing simple things in such a complex, backwards manner is perplexing. It’s one thing being clueless, inept, having an ingrained, institutional one might say, sense of kitsch æsthetics, creating fonts for a totally inferior technology and in the process creating a bunch of problems throughout your platform and it’s a wholly different thing when those things turn into an inability to honour user preferences. Totally mad design decisions and a poor system design on the whole.
Having said that, up until lately Apple had its fair share of problems with typography on OS X (incomplete support for non-roman characters, OpenType issues, etc.) and linux is in a laughable state with pango, fontconfig and friends failing to provide a solid foundation that would support high-end uses in the publishing industry (a nice example would be the total clusterfuck that results when you try to use commercial fonts with many styles). But at least there no one pretends that they know better; they move forward, try and fix what’s wrong and create better software; Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be doing exactly the opposite, at least as far as typography is concerned.