Fax Machines Remain an Office Mainstay

With the advent, popularity and ease of using e-mail, does anyone still depend on those antiquated fax machines? The answer is a rather surprising -- yes.

While many businesses, including newspapers, prefer e-mail, other businesses -- particularly those that deal with secure or legal documents -- continue to rely on the solid, reliable facsimile machine.

Yes, despite modern-day telecommunication devices such as e-mail, cell phones, pagers, direct-dial systems for businesses, voice mail and Blackberries, that old fax machine continues to be an office mainstay.

Some 1.5 million fax machines were sold in the U.S. last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, and that figure doesn't include multifunction machines that also copy, scan and print.

While that's "nowhere close to what sales used to be"? during the heyday of the early and mid-1990s, said Barry Simon, president of DataMax/Micro of Little Rock, it's still pretty remarkable for a technology that has been around since Alexander Bain developed the first fax machine for the telegraph back in 1843. What's more, fax sales actually appear to be on the rise again.

Why are fax machines still around? The reason cited most often is that they offer security for documents that are sent. But some feel the reason may be that people are simply comfortable with faxes and that, despite assurances from the telecommunication industry, there's still a perception that e-mail isn't secure enough for, say, legal documents. Faxes can't be tampered with as easily as something on a computer.

Another reason, which almost seems contradictory, is that e-mail normally goes directly to one person while faxes are less private. If the addressee is on vacation or for some reason doesn't check his or her e-mail that day, business can be lost. But a fax can be routed to someone who can handle the business.

Change is gradual. Remember when a document that had been faxed was routinely also mailed? Even people who depend on e-mail often print out what they receive and file it if it's to be saved. Paper consumption by offices continues to grow, and you never hear anyone talking about a "paperless society"? anymore.

Fax machines have simply become rooted in the way business is conducted, and the device has become as hard to replace as the pencil because it is an inexpensive, fast and reliable way of transmitting documents, contracts, resumes, handwritten notes and illustrations.

Simon, along with Ken Womack of Adona Digital (formerly PTS Office Automation) and Brett Rogers of Capital Business Machines, all of Little Rock, agree that privacy and protection are big factors in the continued livelihood of fax machines.

"You can't walk into a business that doesn't have a fax,"? said Rogers.

Although all types of businesses use faxes, some seem to rely on the fax machine more than others. Real estate companies, law offices, the medical industry, pharmacists and trucking companies were singled out by the three fax sellers.

The technology is available for computers and e-mail to do anything a fax machine can do, including reproducing signatures on documents such as contracts, business proposals and medical prescriptions. But most stick with faxes.

Most companies still run their fax machine on a dedicated phone line. A recent Pitney Bowes study estimated the average Fortune 500 company spends $37 million a year on telephone charges and that nearly 40 percent of that is from sending faxes.

Although the technology may be old, the new commercial-grade fax machines designed for businesses are quieter, faster and have clearer reproduction, Simon, Womack and Rogers agreed.

A typical fax for a small business will run in the $1,500-$2,000 range; one of the newer multifunctional machines will cost $6,000 and above. Some 500,000 of the multifunctional machines were sold last year.

Desktop faxing that allows computer operators to do everything a fax machine does -- and a lot cheaper without the expense of paper and toner -- has never taken off, despite being available for more than a decade. Neither has Internet faxing, in which faxes travel over the Internet from server to server instead of from phone number to phone number.

Fax machine sales remain up, and fax servers and Internet faxing services are flat. Between 80 and 90 percent of all faxes are still sent or received by stand-alone machines.

Rogers said that sooner or later faxes will diminish, and Womack said that 10 years from now "we may be singing a different song." But Simon feels that as long as people have to fill out paper forms and sign them, fax machines will still be around.