Penman No. 186: What the Fax?


Penman for Monday, February 1, 2016


A CASUALTY of the recent upgrade in my home-office setup, which I reported on last week, turned out to be something I hadn’t given much thought to in a very long time—my fax machine, or rather the fax part of my multi-function printer. Moving to a new Internet service provider also happened to mean giving up my old telephone line—one which was practically dedicated to faxing—and I realized, while plugging this line in and unplugging that one, that I really didn’t need a fax machine anymore. Who still sends faxes these days, anyway?

I tried to think of the last time I’d received a truly useful fax message, and I honestly couldn’t remember when that happened. A few years ago, my wife Beng would still receive faxed invitations to bid on certain government contracts for her art restoration business, until I told her to tell her senders that they were better off just emailing the invitations to her, which I suppose they did, because the faxes stopped. I even used to get spam faxes advertising car loans and real estate deals, which was the most annoying thing, because unlike junk email, faxes ate up your paper and your ink.

I’ve written requiems in this corner to late, lamented technologies, especially those having to do with writing and communication. In July 2011, I wrote one for the typewriter, noting that an Indian outfit called Godrej and Boyce—the last company in the world still making typewriters—was closing shop. In August 2013 I performed the same sad ritual for the telegraph (which sent its last full stop, again, in India). For a time, the fountain pen seemed fated to be tossed to the dustbin, thanks to the advance of the ballpoint, the rollerball, and of course the computer, but it’s undergone a remarkable resurgence, although more as a fashion accessory than a writing tool. We can write odes to the newsroom telex, the rotary phone, and the pager (I still have my EasyCall beeper, and when I stuck a battery into it the other day, just to see, it still gave off a faint green glow).

But the fax? Does anyone and will anyone truly miss the fax?

Before we try to answer that question, let’s take a long step backward and recall how the fax (short for “facsimile”) was born—in 1843, from a patent applied for by Alexander Bain, a Scottish inventor who’s also credited for the electric clock. The patent was for “improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces, and in electric printing, and signal telegraphs,” and one of its results was a contraption, using two pendulums, that transferred an image line-by-line from one to the other. Frederick Bakewell improved on the idea with his “image telegraph” in 1848, and in 1861, the Italian Giovanni Caselli did both men better with his “Pantelegraph,” the first commercial fax service between Paris and Lyon—more than a decade before the first working telephones! (Thank you, Wikipedia, for the factoids.)

The heyday of the fax was back in the 1980s, and that’s where many of us baby boomers will remember it from—particularly the smelly rolls of chemically impregnated paper that you needed to keep feeding the machine (and the Xerox machine in the corner, which wasn’t quite ready to take plain paper yet). Having a fax machine at home meant you were busy and important, and having a phone line dedicated to it meant you were doubly busy and doubly important. For senders, the thing to say was “Fax tone, please!” and if your listener heard you right, you got an ear-ache from the resultant screech.

We were still faxing in the 1990s, by which time I was an editorial writer and Lifestyle columnist for the newspaper TODAY. That meant I had to send my piece in by fax—email and Word attachments hadn’t quite caught on, yet. I remember what a thrill it was to pair my computer—a PowerBook 2400c, the precursor of today’s ultrathin MacBook Air—with my Nokia 6210, through the wonders of infrared. You had to line up the two devices so that their IR ports matched exactly, and in those days before Bluetooth and wi-fi, it was the coolest thing, giving you bragging rights as a “road warrior” in the “Roamin’ Empire,” as the computer and connectivity ads of the period trumpeted.

And then email and PDF happened, and suddenly all you had to do was to scan or even photograph a document—or even more simply, save it as PDF—and then to drag and drop it into your outgoing message. Like photographic film, faxing lost its reason for being in a historical instant, at least for most users.

There are, to be sure, holdouts who insist that reports of the death of fax are grossly exaggerated. There’s a piece online with exactly that title that even points out that instead of dying out, faxing has actually grown in recent times. “In 2010,” says the report, “the computer-based fax market was roughly $350 million per year, according to What’s the size of the market in 2013? The market for computer-based faxing is $620 million. Yeah, fax is still around. There are good reasons for the growth in electronic faxing, too. While e-mail has subsumed much of the role faxing used to play, fax technology still offers a number of benefits. These include the need for a paper trail, security, ease of use and business processes that are built around fax and are easier to keep alive than to replace with new processes.”

Take note, however, that the article says “computer-based” or “electronic” faxing, no longer the old method that required a special machine. It goes on to explain that “Just as phone calls have migrated to voice-over-IP (VoIP), fax has migrated to fax-over-IP. This digital version of the fax cuts out the need for paper and fax machines altogether, becoming a form of digital document that acts like e-mail but integrates more fully with older workflows and fax technology.” So FoIP (the “IP” is for “Internet protocol”) seems to be where Bain’s pendulums have gone, and its users argue that there are still things today’s fax technology can do—like provide digital receipts—that regular email can’t (a dubious argument, it seems to me).

As for myself, I’m glad to be rid of that old whine-and-screech. If you have a document for me, email it to me, or upload it to DropBox, and we’ll be saving a small stand of trees and a tub of ink in the process. I’m prone to weeping in remembrance of things past, but losing my fax machine simply leaves me radiant with the glow of digital liberation.

[Image from]





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