There are only two types of technology that I absolutely hate with a passion: printers and faxes. Printers are obviously the bane of IT. With all those drivers for every operating system version (usually about 150 times the size of the actual driver file itself), a predilection for jamming, and of course those ever-popular toner explosion scenarios, I'm still scarred by memories of printer disasters.
But I can accept that printers exist because, yeah, sometimes things need to be printed out. Faxes, however, should be banished to the land of RLL drives and the 5.25-inch floppy. Faxes have no need to exist today, yet they're still all over the place. It's maddening.
[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Read Paul Venezia's classic, "Nine traits of the veteran Unix admin." | Or see if you qualify for the title of certified IT ninja. | Get a $50 American Express gift cheque if we publish your tech tale from the trenches. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. ]
Consider what a fax machine actually is: a little device with a sheet feeder, a terrible scanning element, and an ancient modem. Most faxes run at 14,400bps. That's just over 1KB per second -- and people are still using faxes to send 52 poorly scanned pages of some contract to one another. Over analog phone lines. Sometimes while paying long-distance charges! The mind boggles.
Here's what a fax should be: a little device with a sheet feeder, a reasonably solid scanning element, an Ethernet cable, and no modem whatsoever. It should just be a network scanning function. That's it. You drop a paper document in the feeder, run a small applet on your computer (or on the device itself) that drags the resulting scan into a nice clean (and possibly encrypted) PDF on your system or network, at which point you use any number of methods to send it to someone. Heck, be "old-fashioned" and email the thing. It'll get there in 1/100 the time of the fax, it won't cost money or tie up a phone line, and it will result in far better quality than a low-res scan compressed to squeeze through a data path with the same bandwidth as a piece of bailing wire.
Yet the ancient fax machine survives.
One of the big reasons that people resist mothballing the fax machine is that some items need signatures. I can understand that, but there are already a dozen ways to digitize your signature and apply it to documents. You could also "sign" on your touchpad. These days a signature is all but worthless as an actual traceable indicator of identity, as borne out by the hundreds of times I've signed a POS credit-card machine or delivery service signature pad. Even I couldn't tell you that the resulting signature was mine seconds after I'd signed it. They all look more or less like a random horizontal line that may or may not start with what might be a P. Or an R. It doesn't seem to matter.
Nonetheless, I can understand that traditionalists might demand faxes for contracts and other documents that need an ink signature. OK, fine, let's limit it to that. But no! According to GreenFax, there are over 200 billion pages still faxed every year, and you can be damned sure they're not all contracts. Informational faxes fan out from tons of organizations to tons of other organizations -- with a computer generating the faxes on the send side using a fax modem to send them. It's like a tiny bubble of 1995 surrounds every fax machine. A computer could easily be tasked with emailing the same information or even (gasp!) updating an RSS feed.
True, email is not what it once was, thanks to the bottom-dwelling villanous scumbags that persist in sending billions of spam messages every year. But I'd venture that for person-to-person document transfers, email is far better than faxing, which can easily result in illegible pages, printing errors, faxing errors, security problems on the receiving side ("hmm, this looks interesting"), and a bevy of other problems.
Smart companies don't bother with paper-based fax machines and instead opt for document centers that have scanning abilities in addition to fax capabilities, although they're still beholden to accept faxes. If they're smart, they'll employ a fixed fax server that has four, six, or two dozen analog lines attached and the ability to take incoming faxes and turn them into PDFs and email them internally (or, sadly, ship them directly to a printer). That's still better than a cranky old fax machine sitting in the corner with a pile of forgotten incoming faxes in the hopper. Heck, you can check out any number of companies (like GreenFax) that handle all the fax-to-email capabilities you'd possibly want.
We've been promised the paperless office for decades. Every time someone jettisons a fax machine, that promise gets a little closer to reality. Every time a company omits fax numbers from its business cards and website, it gets even closer. Every time someone sends a 50-page analog fax of a document they just printed out from a PDF on their desktop, it gets further away.
If something as appallingly stupid as the fax machine can live on, it makes you wonder how we make progress at all. Old habits die hard. It just goes to show you: Bad technology generally isn't the problem; it's the people who persist in using that technology rather than embracing far superior alternatives.
This story, "Why the fax machine refuses to die," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld