Why Fax Machines Won't Die

August 15, 2005
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When Michael Dunlap of Michael A. Dunlap & Associates sent out the results of his quarterly office furniture industry survey on Aug. 3, he did so by fax.

"I find, occasionally, that people can still not open attachments, and some of those people are in the media," he said. "There is a certain television station in town whose e-mail system doesn't like Word attachments. So when I send my news releases, I send by fax instead."

When the Business Journal sends out its weekly survey for the Focus List, Editorial Clerk Dianne Volotta relies entirely on fax.

"Fax numbers are stable from year-to-year," she said. "In my experience, when I send out mass e-mails, 50 percent come back undeliverable or I can't confirm if they were received."

Volotta uses a program to broadcast her 100 to 200 faxes a week directly from her computer. Through this, she generates a report documenting the time, date, recipient, number of pages, and the success or failure of each transmission. This information becomes critical when companies do not return the survey and are left off the weekly list. If a firm complains, it usually claims it never received a survey.

"When you use e-mail, you have to be aware of the lack of a paper trail — your inability to confirm that you sent what you claim was sent," she said.

Ten years into the digital age, the business world is fast becoming hand-held, ubiquitous, wireless and, above all, paperless. By all regards, the fax machine should be going the way of vinyl records, cassettes, floppy disks and typewriters.

Yet, 1.5 million fax machines were sold in the United States last year for use at both businesses and homes, according to the Virginia-based Consumers Electronics Association. Manufacturers estimate that they sold at least 500,000 more machines that combined fax with other functions like copying, printing or scanning.

Although sales of stand-alone fax machines are well below their peak of 3.6 million in 1997, if multi-use machines are included, demand may actually be rising.

Fax machines today are quieter, faster, cheaper and produce clearer reproductions. Today, a quality machine can be had for under $50. A multipurpose machine like Hewlett's Fax 1050 — fax, copier and answering machine — is only $99.

In some cases, recipients don't even need a machine. Services like Send2Fax, FaxFreedom and eFax allow users to send and receive faxes online.

"There is one individual I send information to a lot that has e-mail but never checks it," said Dan Calabrese, president and CEO of North Star Public Relations. "I know if I send him a fax, he'll see it right away. If I send him an e-mail, I'll have to call him and ask him to check his e-mail."

Legally speaking, there isn't much difference between a fax and e-mail, according to Jeff Lawson, an attorney at Miller Johnson specializing in e-commerce.

"I do a lot with the buying and selling of businesses," he said. "There you are constantly closing deals, and if everyone isn't at the table, you close with a fax signature."

Also common in real estate, Lawson explained that agreements are often closed with the fax of a signed original document, which is simultaneously mailed.

"You might have an e-mail with a signature capability, and to a certain extent, that's the same," he said. "But it's different than seeing the original document signed."

For the same reasons, pharmacies receive prescriptions almost entirely by fax.

When CPR recently finished its annual health insurance enrollment, the forms were sent by fax.

"I think there is no escaping forms that need to be filled out by hand in some way, shape or form, and approvals that need to be made in a signature format," said Jenny Fanning, CPR president.

CPR has found a steady demand for integrating fax into its Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telecommunication deployments. In its facility, it dropped an additional five phone lines this way. The payback on that integration is less than a year, she said.

This is interesting, because the most common explanation for the use of fax is a distrust of e-mail.

"The biggest thing is uncertainty of technology," Lawson said. "People who aren't computer savvy might not be comfortable with computers — they're concerned with security. But they're relatively comfortable that faxing to someone will not be intercepted."

"Technically, it's still fax," Fanning said of the Fax over Internet Protocol. "But maybe with the integration they can now visualize taking that next step further."

For others, the use of fax comes from a different brand of trust. Fax has not had nearly the blowback of mass marketing that e-mail has had. With anti-spam software, unsolicited e-mails face heavy odds to reach their recipient. Many security systems won't deliver e-mails with attachments.

After that, senders have no assurance the e-mail will be opened in a timely fashion or at all.

"Psychologically, if you envision a physical thing arriving in someone's office, you have a greater sense of confidence that it'll be seen," Calabrese said.

Mass marketers that have turned to fax face even stiffer odds; unsolicited fax advertisements are patently illegal under the Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2005, and the FCC has proved much more effective at prosecuting violators of the fax rules than those of the CAN-SPAM Act. As a local example, The Greater Grand Rapids Fax Tribune was shut down last year.

When Dunlap does send his releases via e-mail, it is only to recipients he knows will see them.

"It all boils down to having a relationship with people so that you can be on their list," said Tim Penning, a communications professor at GrandValleyStateUniversity. "The buzzwords here are relationship marketing and permission marketing.

"Yeah, there are efficiencies with technology, but if people react negatively to them, you're back using older technologies so that they'll even let them in in the first place."

Older technologies like, perhaps, the U.S. Postal Service.    

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