The Fax Machine: Technology That Refuses to Die

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The New York Times

If any of Rodney Eddins’s accounting clients want his undivided attention at work first thing in the morning, they should shun e-mail or his telephone answering machine. Instead, they should send him a fax.

”The first thing I look at when I arrive is the incoming tray of my fax machine,” said Mr. Eddins, a certified public accountant in Orlando, Fla., who has had his own practice for a decade. ”If there’s paper there, I feel like I have to look at it.” Only after he sorts through the morning’s faxes — though most on a recent day were ads like one for a workplace deodorizing service — does Mr. Eddins log on to his computer and listen to his phone messages.

Still, like many other people, Mr. Eddins readily acknowledges a tortured relationship with his fax machine. Finding it essential for transmitting sensitive accounting documents and forms that require signatures, like tax returns, he grudgingly tolerates the noise and mess, not to mention the deluge of junk faxes. ”I actually hate my fax machine,” he said. ”But I need it.”

In an office world that has gone largely digital, hand-held and wireless, the fax machine is ancient technology that just won’t go away. No one shows off her fax machine the way she might, say, a BlackBerry. Yet the fax persists as a mockery of the much-predicted paperless society.

”Back in the mid-1990’s, when e-mail was really coming into its own, we had high-priced consultants telling us that the fax was going the way of the horse and buggy,” said Jonathan Bees, then a product manager for office machines at Konica; he is now editor in chief of Better Buys for Business magazine. Among the products he reviews for consumers these days are fax machines. ”They’re better than ever — quieter, faster and with clearer reproduction,” he said. “They haven’t been passed by, after all.”

Some 1.5 million fax machines were sold in the United States last year for use at both businesses and homes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, based in Arlington, Va. Manufacturers estimate that they sold 500,000 more machines that combined a fax function with other functions, like copying and scanning.

Although sales of stand-alone fax machines are well below their peak of 3.6 million in 1997, some manufacturers say that if the multiuse machines are included, demand has been rising of late. ”We have been seeing an increase in fax sales for the last four or five years,” said Paul Fountain, marketing product manager at Hewlett-Packard in San Diego.

In 1994, Hewlett-Packard left the fax market, believing the predictions of impending obsolescence. But, Mr. Fountain said, ”We came back in 1998 because we realized the fax was not going away.”

While fax machines aren’t as prevalent as computers in the workplace or home offices, Bill Young, a communications coach at the Strickland Group in New York City, said, ”The fax has important functions that e-mail simply hasn’t been able to take over.” Those would include reproducing signatures on documents like contracts, business proposals and medical prescriptions.

CVS, a 5,300-store chain, relies on fax machines as the most common means of receiving prescriptions, said Todd Andrews, a spokesman in Woonsocket, R.I. ”The fax gives the pharmacist a written record of what the doctor ordered,” he said. Faxing avoids misunderstandings that can occur when prescriptions are phoned in — and it reduces or eliminates waiting time for customers who otherwise would deliver their prescriptions by hand. Of course, even with a fax, precise communication is still at the mercy of the doctor’s handwriting.

Another factor in the fax’s favor is security. ”With a fax, you don’t have to worry about computer hackers or someone stealing the password to the recipient’s e-mail,” Mr. Young said. ”As long as there’s a person at the receiving fax ready to remove the paper, the message is confidential.” (Some computers have the capacity to convert the image of an incoming fax to e-mail, but that method loses the privacy advantage.)

Falling prices have helped to maintain the fax’s popularity. ”The fax machine you would buy at Costco or Staples 10 years ago for the home office would typically cost about $200,” Mr. Fountain said. ”Better machines are available today for $45.” The $200 machine a decade ago would have been a stand-alone fax. Now, Hewlett offers the Fax 1050 — a combination fax, copier and answering machine — for $99.

But faxes priced at $100 and less can have at least one drawback: they typically transmit and print at a rate of only about four pages a minute. More money buys more speed, among other things. One business model from Sharp is the FO DC525, which costs $3,000 and transmits and prints 20 pages a minute.

Commercial machines are available for mass faxing of more than 100 pages a minute. But the prices of such machines can reach $70,000, and they are usually more the size of mainframe computers than office machines, so you won’t find them in the fax aisle at Staples.

All of this has come too late to benefit the fax’s inventor, the Scottish physicist Alexander Bain. He patented the first primitive fax machine in 1843, some 30 years before the telephone. Called the ”recording telegraph,” Mr. Bain’s invention used a stylus attached to a pendulum, which passed over metal type to sense light or dark spots on the plated ”document” being sent. A pendulum on the receiving device made a stain on chemically treated paper when electric charges were sent on a telegraph line. But Mr. Bain’s innovation came nearly 100 years before the Information Age, and there was little demand for it. He died poor.

Mr. Bain might have been mortified at one problem with today’s fax machines: their vulnerability to their own version of junk mail. Junk faxers can tie up machines and delay important messages, and some critics label them thieves.

”They can steal a lot of paper from recipients who don’t even want to get their ads,” said Lawrence Markey Jr., a lawyer at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, Calif.

He started suing junk faxers in 2001, in California small-claims courts. Such litigation is painstaking, he said. ”I have collected about $5,000 so far from various companies,” he said, ”not nearly enough to compensate for my time.” One plus, though, he said, is that junk faxers don’t seem to be dialing his number as often.
”The Fax Machine vs. E-Mail”:
Messaging on paper holds up well in the modern era of e-mail:

SPEED: Edge to e-mail, which can be instant. Fax machines priced under $100
may have a top speed of just four pages a minute.

RELIABILITY: Edge to fax machines, which provide immediate written verification that a message has arrived. E-mail gives immediate confirmation only that the sender’s message has

EQUIPMENT COST: Edge to fax machines, which may cost much less than $100. E-mail requires a computer and monitor.

COST OF SUPPLIES: Edge to e-mail. No paper, no ink, no messy cartridges. Fax machines use enough paper to denude forests. Changing ink cartridges can create laundry.

OPERATING COSTS: No edge: Fax machines often have their own phone lines. E-mail requires internet access, although that can also be via phone line dial-up.

SECURITY: Edge to fax messages if the paper is guarded on both ends. E-mail may be subject to the scrutiny of internet-sophisticated snoopers.

THE ANNOYANCE FACTOR: No edge: Fax machines are relatively noisy and spew paper that can pile up and fall on the floor. Computers abound with glitches, crashes and bugs that can mean e-mail down time.

(Sources by Jonathan Bees, editor and chief, Better Buys for Business Magazine; Bill Young, communications coach, the Strickland Group Consumer Electronics Association.)

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