THE FAX MACHINE THAT REFUSES TO DIE
THE FAX MACHINE THAT REFUSES TO DIE
2005-03-29 at 10:23:00 am #11147
The Fax Machine:
Technology That Refuses to die
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 BLACK BERRY. 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 HP 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
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
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