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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December 2003, 12:17 GMT
Fax - the technology that refuses to die
Dot.life - how technology can change our lives
By Paul Rubens

Why bother with fax machines when almost everything put on paper has been produced in digital format?

Fax machine
Practically a museum piece
Ever tried to phone a company and dialled the fax number by mistake, receiving an ear-splitting screech as a result?

It's an easy slip-up to make, because phone and fax numbers are usually printed next to each other in the most prominent position on corporate stationary, business cards, adverts and websites.

But what's the fax number doing in such a prominent position? Now that e-mail, texting, and even photo-messaging and have become so ubiquitous, surely no-one communicates by fax much any more.

The fax machine is an ancient piece of office equipment - it was invented in its earliest form by one Alexander Bain in 1843. It transmits the contents of pieces of paper, but these days the chances are high that anything on paper started as an electronic document. So why print it out and fax it when you can e-mail the digital version?

It's also likely that at least some faxed information will be typed back into a computer at the other end. So why convert it from digital to analogue and back again when you can keep it digital and save time and paper? Even if you fax directly from your computer, this still effectively turns a digital document into an analogue one.

With drawn or handwritten documents, it's far better to scan and then e-mail these than to use a fax as this might transform how it turns out. If either fax machine is dirty, then the document will be smudged or have black lines though it. And since fax machines convert colour to black and white, anything drawn or written in a light colour may disappear altogether.

Mature technology

Yet faxing is more popular than it's ever been. Last year an estimated 40% more pages were faxed than the previous year (although the number of fax machines in use remained about constant). But why does the fax machine remain popular when its functions can be done more quickly, cheaply and accurately by digital communication?

E-mail
E-mail has yet to usurp the fax
In part it's exactly because of its age. A signed document sent by fax is admissible as evidence in a court while a simple e-mail may not be - although this is bound to change in coming years as e-mail becomes more mature.

But there's another, more subtle, reason. The fax machine has insinuated itself into the world of digital communications to such an extent that the distinction between a fax and an e-mail is increasingly blurred.

When they first became popular in the early 1970s, fax machines were only useful in pairs: owning a machine wasn't worthwhile unless others you communicated with had one too. This is no longer the case - today, only one party needs a fax machine to keep in touch.

To send a fax without a fax machine, you can use one of many websites which offer web-to-fax gateways. Write a message or specify an existing document on your computer, provide a fax number, and the message will be converted into a fax.

FAX SERVICES ONLINE
Free fax-to-e-mail services include pumaone.co.uk and efax.com
The Phone Company [http://www.tpc.int] has a free web-to-fax gateway
Send e-mails to a fax machine at faxmachinesonline.com
The same is true in reverse: if you don't have a fax machine, simply sign up for a free fax number at a fax-to-e-mail service, which converts faxes into e-mails and sends these to your in-box.

In fact, you don't even need a computer to receive e-mails - if you have a fax machine. E-mail-to-fax services exist which automatically convert e-mails into faxes. Although a rather strange technical downgrading, this does have the advantage that while computers and e-mails can carry viruses, fax machines can never be put out of action by a hacker or malicious program code.

Thanks to these internet-to-fax and fax-to-internet gateways, it looks like fax machines, and the piercing fax shriek in the ear, will be around for years to come.

We'll just have to learn to contend with two new irritations which accompany them: spam e-mails spewing out of the fax machine, and unsolicited junk faxes turning up in in-boxes.




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