Technology Kills a Lot of Industries, But Why Won’t the Fax Machine Just Die Already?

It's like a cockroach.

If Franz Kafka had written a “Seinfeld” scene, this would be it. After negotiating for two hours, the student loan provider promised to e-mail me the documents. I just needed to sign and send them back to end the nightmare.

“You take e-mail, right?” I asked.

“Actually, fax them to us,” she said. “The number’s at the top of the document.”

“Really? I can’t just e-mail?” I asked.

“We prefer faxes,” she said. “If we did everything over e-mail, we’d get an avalanche of messages. Things would get lost in the flurry.”

“I guess I can see that,” I conceded. I know technology often creates as many problems as it solves, but faxing is, well, annoying. I tried again. Couldn’t I, just this once, e-mail back the files? Pretty please?

She only laughed. “We get that all the time, too,” she said. “We can only take your document via fax — sorry.”

Sheeh. Who faxes, anymore? Well, it turns out, more people than I thought.

The fax machine plays a surprisingly central role in Japanese business life. Nearly 100 percent of all companies and 60 percent of private homes have fax machines, according to the Washington Post. And last year alone, they bought 1.7 million old-school, spool-and-dial fax machines.

In fact, the Japanese still send party invitations, bank statements and shopping orders through fax. It’s a must for business, often used in place of e-mail. And when the Fukushima Daiichi disaster hit, for example, operators told the government of its plan to injection seawater, not by phone, but via fax, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But why the fascination with a dinosaur?

Well, bureaucrats want the paper trail to keep track of orders and shipments, and others, like the Yakuza, the country’s crime syndicate, say they just don’t trust the security of electronic communication. It’s such a stalwart that even gang members tell off their enemies with a cursory fax.

Of course, companies have tried to modernize, but they say it’s consumers that resist — if they don’t offer a fax number, sales and revenues plummet. Yuichiro Sugahara, owner of a bento box delivery service, for example, tried to switch to online forms, but after a drastic drop in orders, he quickly changed back. He says his customers like to add very particular requests and fax lets them customize in a way that e-mail or online forms can’t do with convenience.

“There is still something in Japanese culture that demands the warm, personal feelings that you get with a handwritten fax,” he told the New York Times.

But why do businesses insist on fax when you can just scan, convert and e-mail? You can do it to anything and send it anywhere at any time. Fax machines are relics of the Stone Age, yet they still persist around the world.

Well, it turns out heavily-regulated industries — like banking, finance, law and healthcare — are one reason sales hold steady. And despite strong competition from cloud-sharing services like Dropbox and Google Drive, over 35 million all-in-one fax machines were shipped worldwide in 2011 and 2012, according to Gartner. And that doesn’t include single-function machines, which the firm stopped tracking years ago.

“There are still plenty of fax machines out there,” Ken Weilerstein, a Gartner analyst, told Fortune. “Declining in this space doesn’t mean disappearing by a long shot.”

Despite, or perhaps due to, the plethora of cloud-based services, there isn’t an industry standard for document sharing. “It would take a monumental effort by a large group of different people to all agree on a new standard,” Kyle Flowers, director of marketing at j2 Global, which owns eFax, a service that lets you fax as PDFs, told Fortune.

It lives because, for a long time, it was the best and often only way to share documents quickly. Sure, there are faster and more convenient options, but no one standard has emerged to dethrone the king from its place atop the office machine kingdom. And to understand why, we have to look at its history.

The facsimile transmission has had over 160 years to cement itself as a business-world standard. In 1843, Scottish inventor Alexander Bain received a patent for a method to “produce and regulate electric currents in electric printing and signal telegraphs” — in other words, the first fax transmission.

His work expanded on Samuel Morse’s telegraph — but instead of sending just letters and words, he transmitted graphics. Cobbled together with clock parts and telegraph machines, it looked nothing like today’s machines. A simple stylus, mounted on a pendulum, swung back and forth to “scan” the form from a flat metal surface. It was crude, to say the least.

But over the next hundred years, inventors improved on his machine. By 1955, the first radio-wave fax was sent across the continent. And by 1966, Xerox released the Magnafax — a smaller, faster and cheaper model. The landmark device sent letter-sized documents in a then lightning-fast six minutes. But more importantly, it connected to a phone line, making it easy to install and use.

By the late ’70s, companies like Sony flooded the market with even lighter and cheaper units, and soon the fax became a staple of both large and small businesses alike, hitting critical mass in the late ’80s.

And since its heyday, fax machines have evolved to add the latest technology and stay relevant. Digital lines sped up data rates. And Internet and e-mail services, like eFax, took out the bulky machines altogether. Now, software converts and sends documents to the farthest ends of the world.

But as the speed of business quickens — and workers become increasingly mobile, cobbling together an on-the-go office from laptops, tablets and smartphones — fax looks like it’s on its last legs.

After all, you can take a photo of a document and send it over e-mail. And scanner apps like JotNot Scanner, in free and paid versions for iOS, and CamScanner for Android, can double as de facto fax machines. They’ll convert any picture into a PDF. You just need good lighting for a clear version as clean as a paper copy.

Apps can also send and receive faxes. IFax, for iOS and Android, can open PDFs from e-mail, Dropbox or Evernote. You can also take a photo, convert it, add an electronic signature and send it back — with a level of security so high that even the sensitive medical industry can use it.

If you need a machine to receive faxes, the app can e-mail or send a push alert when a document arrives — no screeching, electronic howls. But the innovative twist on old technology will cost you: the app is free, but sending faxes costs from $1 to $3 for up to five pages, depending on where you live. It gets expensive for more.

You’ll need a phone number to receive faxes, too. And that requires an in-app subscription, which starts at $13 a month. It’s not cheap, but if you’re a mobile worker or you simply want to give the heave-ho to your clunky, dust-collected fax machine, apps are the solution.

After my futile attempt at convenience, I sucked it up and signed and faxed the forms back to the student loan provider. I thought about signing up for iFax, but after my four-year-old nephew asked, “What’s a fax?” I knew I had to take a pilgrimage to an actual fax machine — if only to show him a relic that may disappear before he gets his first job. After all, the Smithsonian added old-style fax machines to its archives last year.

So we headed to Kinko’s, where they have one, lone fax machine for general use. My nephew, who’s a whiz with the iPad, was confused. Where’s touch screen? When I told him it used buttons, he started pressing all of them, making it beep and screech and sending the store manager scurrying our way.

I showed him how to fill out a cover sheet, stack the papers just right, and type in the number. Then, as he hit the green send button, he watched with equal parts suspicion and disbelief as it whirred, making sounds and spitting out pages one by one. For $2 a sheet, the 17-page document took longer to send — and cost more — than I’d like. And my nephew, clearly a member of the post-fax generation, was bored with it pretty quickly.

As we walked out, he still refused to believe it actually worked — that somewhere on the other side, another machine was printing out that same document, ready for an unseen chain of bureaucrats to process and file it, and, perhaps, to fax it to someone else. And so the cycle repeats.

He liked how it printed out a confirmation, though, and when we came home, he asked his mom if he could buy a fax machine for his birthday. It was “fun” to press buttons and “make the machine eat the paper,” he said. And that made me think: maybe thousands of Japanese businesses, bureaucrats and gangsters are right. Maybe there is something to having a tactile experience when interacting with technology. As everything becomes digitized — electronic vapor floating in the air between machines — there’s still something engaging about an actual machine and actual paper.

Maybe the humble fax machine will continue to stand sentinel along with iPads, 3-D printers and other wonders of the electronic age, content to gather dust until the rare fax causes it to hum and screech loudly again.


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