Facing the Fax

Technology kills a lot of industries, but why won't the fax machine just die?

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Corrections Appended: July 12, 2013

The original version of this article included several quotes or statements that were not clearly attributed to the original sources.

If Franz Kafka had written a “Seinfeld” scene, this would be it. After negotiating for two hours, the student loan provider promised to e-mail me the documents. I just needed to sign and send them back to end the nightmare.

“You take e-mail, right?” I asked.

“Actually, fax them to us,” she said. “The number’s at the top of the document.”

“Really? I can’t just e-mail?” I asked.

“We prefer faxes,” she said. “If we did everything over e-mail, we’d get an avalanche of messages. Things would get lost in the flurry.”

“I guess I can see that,” I conceded. I know technology often creates as many problems as it solves, but faxing is, well, annoying. I tried again. Couldn’t I, just this once, e-mail back the files? Pretty please?

She only laughed. “We get that all the time, too,” she said. “We can only take your document via fax — sorry.”

Sheeh! Who faxes, anymore? Well, it turns out, more people than I thought.

The Island of Unwanted Fax Machines

The fax machine plays a surprisingly central role in Japanese business life. Nearly 100 percent of all companies and 60 percent of private homes have fax machines, according to the Washington Post. And last year alone, they bought 1.7 million old-school, spool-and-dial fax machines.

In fact, the Japanese still send party invitations, bank statements and shopping orders through fax. It’s a must for business, often used in place of e-mail. And when the Fukushima Daiichi disaster hit, for example, operators told the government of its plan to injection seawater, not by phone, but via fax.

But why the fascination with a dinosaur?

Well, bureaucrats want the paper trail to keep track of orders and shipments, and others, like the Yakuza, the country’s crime syndicate, say they just don’t trust the security of electronic communication. It’s such a stalwart that even gang members tell off their enemies with a cursory fax.

Of course, companies have tried to modernize, but they say it’s consumers that resist — if they don’t offer a fax number, sales and revenues plummet. Yuichiro Sugahara, owner of a bento box delivery service, for example, tried to switch to online forms, but after a drastic drop in orders, he quickly changed back. He says his customers like to add very particular requests and fax lets them customize in a way that e-mail or online forms can’t do with convenience.

“There is still something in Japanese culture that demands the warm, personal feelings that you get with a handwritten fax,” he told the New York Times.

Who Still Needs to Fax?

But why do businesses insist on fax when you can just scan, convert and e-mail? You can do it to anything and send it anywhere at any time. Fax machines are relics of the Stone Age, yet they still persist around the world.

Well, it turns out heavily-regulated industries — like banking, finance, law and healthcare — are one reason sales hold steady. And despite strong competition from cloud-sharing services like Dropbox and Google Drive, over 35 million all-in-one fax machines were shipped worldwide in 2011 and 2012, according to Gartner. And that doesn’t include single-function machines, which the firm stopped tracking years ago.

“There are still plenty of fax machines out there,” Ken Weilerstein, a Gartner analyst, told Fortune. “Declining in this space doesn’t mean disappearing by a long shot.”

Despite, or perhaps due to, the plethora of cloud-based services, there isn’t an industry standard for document sharing. “It would take a monumental effort by a large group of different people to all agree on a new standard,” Kyle Flowers, director of marketing at j2 Global, which owns eFax, a service that lets you fax as PDFs, told Fortune.

It lives because, for a long time, it was the best and often only way to share documents quickly. Sure, there are faster and more convenient options, but no one standard has emerged to dethrone the king from its place atop the office machine kingdom. And to understand why, we have to look at its history.

A Surprisingly Long History

The facsimile transmission has had over 160 years to cement itself as a business-world standard. In 1843, Scottish inventor Alexander Bain received a patent for a method to “produce and regulate electric currents in electric printing and signal telegraphs” — in other words, the first fax transmission.

His work expanded on Samuel Morse’s telegraph — but instead of sending just letters and words, he transmitted graphics. Cobbled together with clock parts and telegraph machines, it looked nothing like today’s machines. A simple stylus, mounted on a pendulum, swung back and forth to “scan” the form from a flat metal surface. It was crude, to say the least.

But over the next hundred years, inventors improved on his machine. By 1955, the first radio-wave fax was sent across the continent. And by 1966, Xerox released the Magnafax — a smaller, faster and cheaper model. The landmark device sent letter-sized documents in a then lightning-fast six minutes. But more importantly, it connected to a phone line, making it easy to install and use.

By the late ’70s, companies like Sony flooded the market with even lighter and cheaper units, and soon the fax became a staple of both large and small businesses alike, hitting critical mass in the late ’80s.

And since its heyday, fax machines have evolved to add the latest technology and stay relevant. Digital lines sped up data rates. And Internet and e-mail services, like eFax, took out the bulky machines altogether. Now, software converts and sends documents to the farthest ends of the world.

But as the speed of business quickens — and workers become increasingly mobile, cobbling together an on-the-go office from laptops, tablets and smartphones — fax looks like it’s on its last legs.

After all, you can take a photo of a document and send it over e-mail. And scanner apps like JotNot Scanner, in free and paid versions for iOS, and CamScanner for Android, can double as de facto fax machines. They’ll convert any picture into a PDF. You just need good lighting for a clear version as clean as a paper copy.

Apps can also send and receive faxes. IFax, for iOS and Android, can open PDFs from e-mail, Dropbox or Evernote. You can also take a photo, convert it, add an electronic signature and send it back — with a level of security so high that even the sensitive medical industry can use it.

If you need a machine to receive faxes, the app can e-mail or send a push alert when a document arrives — no screeching, electronic howls. But the innovative twist on old technology will cost you: the app is free, but sending faxes costs from $1 to $3 for up to five pages, depending on where you live. It gets expensive for more.

You’ll need a phone number to receive faxes, too. And that requires an in-app subscription, which starts at $13 a month. It’s not cheap, but if you’re a BYOD worker or you simply want to give the heave-ho to your clunky, dust-collected fax machine, apps are the solution.

The Dodo of the iPhone Era

After my futile attempt at convenience, I sucked it up and signed and faxed the forms back to the student loan provider. I thought about signing up for iFax, but after my four-year-old nephew asked, “What’s a fax?” I knew I had to take a pilgrimage to an actual fax machine — if only to show him a relic that may disappear before he gets his first job. After all, the Smithsonian added old-style fax machines to its archives last year.

So we headed to Kinko’s, where they have one, lone fax machine for general use. My nephew, who’s a whiz with the iPad, was confused. Where’s touch screen? When I told him it used buttons, he started pressing all of them, making it beep and screech and sending the store manager scurrying our way.

I showed him how to fill out a cover sheet, stack the papers just right, and type in the number. Then, as he hit the green send button, he watched with equal parts suspicion and disbelief as it whirred, making sounds and spitting out pages one by one. For $2 a sheet, the 17-page document took longer to send — and cost more — than I’d like. And my nephew, clearly a member of the post-fax generation, was bored with it pretty quickly.

As we walked out, he still refused to believe it actually worked — that somewhere on the other side, another machine was printing out that same document, ready for an unseen chain of bureaucrats to process and file it, and, perhaps, to fax it to someone else. And so the cycle repeats.

He liked how it printed out a confirmation, though, and when we came home, he asked his mom if he could buy a fax machine for his birthday. It was “fun” to press buttons and “make the machine eat the paper,” he said. And that made me think: maybe thousands of Japanese businesses, bureaucrats and gangsters are right. Maybe there is something to having a tactile experience when interacting with technology. As everything becomes digitized — electronic vapor floating in the air between machines — there’s still something engaging about an actual machine and actual paper.

Maybe the humble fax machine will continue to stand sentinel along with iPads, 3-D printers and other wonders of the electronic age, content to gather dust until the rare fax causes it to hum and screech loudly again.

This article was written by Kat Ascharya and originally appeared on Mobiledia.

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113 comments
ASChaigneau
ASChaigneau

If you want a French Company to react to something dont send an email send a fax.  You get almost instant response. Considered as legal as a letter and a record of communication that cannot be faked (more or less) ...

mahameed40
mahameed40

The writer did not find out the real reason for the popularity of fax in East Asia. The languages of China, Japan and Korea are far easier to write by hand than on computer. So, the user found it easier to write on a plain paper and then fax it. The fax became popular in East Asia, long before PC emerged. In countries using Latin script, typing on typewriter or computer was much easier than writing by hand. So, fax was not a favourite. 

pagebypage.t
pagebypage.t

Actually the fax is much simpler. Just put the paper in the machine and hit send. For email, you have to scan (if the stupid scanner decides to work without a restart), attach, and send. Extra steps, more time. I don't mind sending as an email, but the fax is quicker, hands down.

AlbertoRodriguez
AlbertoRodriguez

I recently tried to create a new checking account with Etrade Bank. I also discovered that they would not receive the application and identification documents via email; they had to be faxed - to a unit that did not support colors.  I later discovered how badly organized they are and how everything is twice as difficult with them and chose not to open the account. Dinosaurs live where you least expect them.

pbug56
pbug56

Regardless of how out of date fax is, even if the faxes are received by servers and stored on hard drive rather then printed, they are still a lot better then having to fill out a piece of paper by hand and mail it cross country where someone then reads it, types info into a computer from it - eventually.  That just happened to me when I had some medical claims.  The firm doesn't even take faxes.  And these days, it's so easy to scan a document into a PDF and email it - or better yet, do the doc on the computer and email it to the recipient.

karylmoore
karylmoore

Clever how you managed to write and sell an article about your experience so the $34 fax was a write-off plus you made additional money on top of it.  I'm impressed!

TallusRip
TallusRip

I feel like every clinic in Texas still uses fax machines to correspond with one another.  I absolutely HATE it.  I try to get records on a patient from another office and I don't even know if they got the freaking thing.  I have to harass them to respond because they won't half the time.  I HATE FAXES.

buckleysangel
buckleysangel

If you think it's OK to email your social security number around then you're too stupid for college anyway.

Thewayitis
Thewayitis

I work in health law and we do not use fax machines-ever. We don't even have them in the office.  Everything is sent via secure email and password protected.

JayDee1
JayDee1

Actually if you use faxaway (thenthedot) (andtheregularextension)  you won't realize you don't have a fax.  Been using it for 10 years. Simple, cheap, no advertising, no spam.

Amyl
Amyl

This writer is a complainer - as Mark Davis (previous commenter) pointed out, if you emailed it, the company would have to print it out anyway. They obviously need a hard copy for their files. Stop complaining and just do it. She's whining because she doesn't have a fax machine and doesn't want to have to find one.

MarkDavis
MarkDavis

If we got rid of fax machines, we'd still need a scanner to scan paper documents. Then we'd have to go through the extra step of emailing.


The beef I have is that fax still needs to 'dial-up'. Why can't there be a faster connection?

MarkDavis
MarkDavis

We prefer faxes,” she said. “If we did everything over e-mail, we’d get an avalanche of messages. Things would get lost in the flurry.” “I guess I can see that,” I conceded.

How does this make any sense? An email client organizes incoming messages and fax machines spit out paper that can be picked up by the wrong person and papers get lost. How dumb.

toonman
toonman

I worked in crisis communications for a municipal government a few years back. And I was told fax machines were still necessary because of the potential for computer networks to go down and be hacked. You can't hack a fax, and as long as telephone service is working (and I think that can include cell these days too, not just landline) then you can send a fax. It may seem like there's no place for faxes, but they do play a role. That said, for day to day business I think they're useless, and companies have lost tons of money on paper and ink printing out all the spam and the like that has flooded fax systems for years. But you still find businesses using them - I work for home, with e-mail and digital my primary means of sending stuff back and forth, and I lost one client who insisted I go out and buy a fax machine or a printer with a fax function and I said it wasn't worth the effort.

jpshel
jpshel

I am missing the point. What difference does it make if people are still using fax machines? If it still works, and it stills does what people need it do, why get rid of it? What is the big deal ?

mdgeorge01
mdgeorge01

Legal Issue _ Confidentual Issues (Communication with Your Lawyer) The Courts have ruled that FAX's as a Point to Point form of communication are secure (In a legal Since-can you say NSA?) while Email travels through the Internet via many different servers can not be considered as a secure form of communication. So there, the US Legal System wants to keep this Klunky system in service.

mantan073
mantan073

I also love to send thousands of bogus faxes via my email to companies that use only faxes.  This forces them to purchase more expensive toner.   

Can you imagine if everyone with a email account did just that.   Awesome.  Talk about over load.  

mantan073
mantan073

I don't do business with companies that only accept faxes.   I have no time for that non-sense.   

I call them up on the phone and if I hear we only accept faxes  the next sound they hear is click and then a dial tone.   

Some people can not handle the advances in technology…  

ScottVetter
ScottVetter

Look at what has to be done to email: Scan it in to the computer.  Then bring up the email program. Start an email message.  Address it to the recipient.  Put in a subject.  Write a message.  Attach the scan document.  Spell check.  Click send.

With a fax:  Scan the document. Put in the phone number.  Get the sent transaction page.

10 steps vs 3.

mylilelar1
mylilelar1

Quite simple really.

Absolutely EVERYTHING in a transaction HAS to end up in PAPER.

Emails are "OK" during many of the initial transactions in real estate for example,but when it comes down to the final contract and deed>>>>are you really willing to have it "in the cloud" and trust that it will be there forever?

Title companies have you on PAPER,but do 90% of their dealings with you online before the final paper.

County and state records have you on PAPER,but now do the majority of business with you online before the final paper.

Paper is stored usually behind secure structures many times fire proof.

Day in and day out one hears of breaches in security of email accounts...where do you think the deed to your home,the contract you signed for ANYTHING is?

It's on paper.

mageen52
mageen52

The office still has a fax machine for one very good reason: our computers have been known to "freeze" from time to time.  The same thing happens with the folks trying to e-mail us with an attachment.  Also, it is downright impossible to ignore an incoming fax when the signal on the machine goes off whereas an e-mail can get lost on an overly busy New Mail screen.

JohnSmith20
JohnSmith20

Keep in mind most printer/scanners people buy have built in fax machines that they never use. This changes the dynamic of the number of fax machines to fax machines used.

CynthiaAvishegnath
CynthiaAvishegnath

The fax offers people a false sense of privacy and security, as though pattern recognition software does not exist.

At least email and web offer secure services. How many people actually use a secure fax line or service?

KLInIdaho
KLInIdaho

You can use  . my fax dot com . without a machine and send a fax over the web; I used it for health care documentation for years.  Ten bucks a month for a set amount and only ten cents a page after that.

JoseEsparza
JoseEsparza

A lot of people don't think an e=mail is as legitimate as a faxed document.  I work for an Insurance company, and we can either send you a card via regular mail, e-mail, or fax.  All three formats produce the same card, because we don't issue plastic cards.  Logic says send it to me in an e-mail, right?  Most people want it sent with a combo of regular mail and e-mail, or fax and e-mail.  Either way, e-mail is just not trusted enough or seem as a legitimate way of transferring documets.  

ruralvoice
ruralvoice

I still use FAX to be able to communicate with those who do not have a scan/FAX all in one printing machine. Currently, even those I am completely literate at scanning, e-mail, pdf creation and attachments, I sometimes use a FAX because it is just simple (and my machine still works). Now, I will not replace my stand alone FAX machine; I'll use my All-In-One printer to FAX documents to those who still have trouble integrating a pdf file into their office software.

DavidYard
DavidYard

I agree. I don't have a fax. I prefer to email. It's easier.  Fax is so 1980's

sam49art
sam49art

I worked in the medical field for 36 years. Faxes were a God send. Particularly after the HIPAA law for confidential information sharing .They are marvelous for the real estate industry as well .It's a pain to get the email, covert it to a PDF, print, sign ( if the electronic signature is not working which is most of the time) scan and then email back. Fax comes in, do what you need to do, fax it back, file  and done.  They have their place . They are used a lot in the legal community as well.  Not all businesses are set up to have the capability for getting material in by e-mail then print out, scan back in, etc.   Our office has a Biz Hub, and while it has some nice features- when you really need to get things done- the plain old fax machine and copy machine, and....and....the typewriter!!!!!  work every time.

Rickyp784
Rickyp784

My company has a digital faxing system.  We have a server with a fax card in it, and each port is a different fax number.  Whenever a fax comes in, the system receives it, converts it, and forwards it to our mail server for our customer service department to process.  We also have confidential ones for Executive, Rules Compliance, and HR that only certain people can see.  We haven't received a paper fax in our building in over 5 years, and NOBODY misses them.

just-me-in-tn
just-me-in-tn

I prefer to receive documents by email, but if I'm sending, I prefer fax.  To scan, save, attach, etc. takes way too long.  

mylilelar1
mylilelar1

@Thewayitis Eventually when all is said in done your transactions will end up on paper somewhere.

Are you going to tell me that absolutely every transaction relating to someone's health is trusted online?

Tell me again how many banks the U.S. Defense Dept and virtually everyone has been hacked or compromised. If it hasn't happened yet....it will eventually. I am NOT an advocate of FAX being the primary conveyance here.......just saying.

casprdko
casprdko

@Thewayitis - Not everyone has an mail server with encryption enabled and even fewer people have a secure messaging system.   What you're doing is not sending an email, you're creating a message locally and giving someone a notice to go to your secure messaging server to retrieve it.  Big difference between that and encrypted email.   I work in the health care industry also and the easiest way to be hipaa compliant is to use fax when sending PHI.  

Sue0531
Sue0531

@Thewayitis Secure email and password protection is not considered a legal document, UNLESS and only unless, that secure email is going through a fax server prior to being sent.

Then, it is actually a fax, just you, as the secretary, are unaware of the mode of transmission and just "think" you're emailing .

alleybaba
alleybaba

@mantan073 So you won't use an old fax, but you're still using an old phone with a dial tone.  Nice.

TallusRip
TallusRip

@ScottVetter You forgot that faxes often need cover pages, so you spend 15 minutes just writing the freaking thing by hand, or if you type it, then you have to print it anyway.  You also can't confirm if the fax actually went through; all you can can confirm is that the line wasn't busy or something.  I can't tell you how many times I've sent faxes, only to not be responded to for days, have to call the company I'm faxing to and have them tell me they never received anything from me.  With emails, you can require them to send a receipt that they got it, with a simple click.

If you seriously think faxes are easier than emails, you must've grown up using type-writers with dial-in paper spools.

Thewayitis
Thewayitis

@ScottVetter That still does not guarantee that it arrived to correct destination nor received by the intended recipient. I have received faxes of patient information to my home fax due to entering numbers wrong.  Also, with a secure email, you know when it was picked up and it can only be retrieved by the intended recipient.  I will stick to the 3 step scan an email; not sure where 10 steps come in as I do it about 50+ times a day at work.

Thewayitis
Thewayitis

@mylilelar1 I work in health law and do everything electronically and never print anything, so you are wrong, sorry.

mylilelar1
mylilelar1

@DavidYard Emails are gossip toys.

ANYHTING to do with business needs to END UP on paper.

I mean really......do you actually think people FAX just to say "hi.how ya doing" and going on and on about tonight's movie or Saturday's football game? No.

Emails have their place and in business....FAX machines will always have their place.

mylilelar1
mylilelar1

@Rickyp784 You are the intermediary.........somewhere in you business,the final documents end up in paper.

Rickyp784
Rickyp784

We can even send faxes from Outlook.  The mail server sends the body of the message as a cover sheet and the attachments to the fax server and it dials out and transmits like a traditional machine would.

shueevon
shueevon

@Sue0531 @Thewayitis I work as a contract specialist for the dept of defense. We e-mail our contracts, which are also available via our web site. No faxes - ever. If there is a need for a pen and ink signature, we scan it and e-mail a .pdf. 

pagebypage.t
pagebypage.t

@TallusRip @ScottVetter You don't really need a cover page. All the information from the fax is printed in the upper or lower margin of the page when received if you have set your machine up correctly. Where I work, we send faxes that also require a response when received. 

Your comment about typewriters (no hyphen please) makes no sense.

pagebypage.t
pagebypage.t

I guess, also, that you didn't really read Scott's post. He outlined the 10 steps for emailing quite clearly. Fax is only 3 steps.  Fax is far from being obsolete.

WorldPeas
WorldPeas

@Thewayitis @ScottVetter -- As someone who started practicing law in the fax era, I've seen far more emails sent to the wrong person than I've ever seen faxes.  This is particularly true of legal documents and related communications -- forgot to delete everyone from the email chain and, wow, you just sent that crucial hole in your defense to opposing counsel!  Woops!  As an attorney, I saw far fewer liability issues and data breaches with faxes than I've seen with email (even supposedly secure email -- because they get copied and sent around anyway).  I don't miss the fax but it has some security features that email lacks.

Sue0531
Sue0531

@Thewayitis @ScottVetter Truly you don't know what it is you're doing.  I'll bet on Monday you are going to walk into your office and ask someone a a question and find out that all that "emailing" you think you're doing is actually sending a fax, via email, most likely through a RightFax server.

You're doing your firm a HUGE discredit to continue stating all over this message board that you never send faxes and only send "secure emails".  No law office in their right mind uses email for sensitive documents and most law offices utilize some sort of fax server software.