The halcyon age of the fax machine came in the late 1980s. Fax machines had become affordable for millions of people – it was a revolution. You could send a sheet of paper to anyone in the country instantaneously. You could sign a contract and fax a copy of the contract, with your signature on it, to close a deal. Most of this activity, of course, would go on to be replaced by email. But for those of us old enough to remember the 1980s, the fax machine gave us a taste of what the Internet age would be like.
So faxing as we know it has been around a long time – about 30 years. Faxing is also inexpensive to implement and doesn’t require users to have a college degree in data analysis to use it. This helps explain why faxing is commonplace in businesses that exchange documented information. It was the predecessor to today’s B2B electronic document interchange (EDI) systems, but even though those systems are more reliable, able to handle significantly larger volume, and provide additional features (such as indexing and storage), many businesses and government offices continue to use 1980s style fax machines due to their simplicity. And many users have made it clear that they don’t want faxing to go away.
So what do we do? We know that we need something better. Systems that manage utilization review send out thousands of fax documents every day, most going to doctors’ offices. This takes time. For example, the documents need to be converted to the fax compressed image format, a phone communication link needs to be established between the transmitting and receiving machines, and transmission of the compressed image is limited to phone data speeds. The machines have electronic overhead in that they need to exchange a “handshake” and stay in sync to successfully transmit the images – which takes away from the bandwidth available to transmit data. And remember that throughput of getting the faxes out is limited by three things: the number of faxes, the size of the faxes, and the number of phone lines available to send them. Once your fax volume overwhelms your capacity, work backs up and you run the risk of exceeding statutory deadlines.
I propose that the next phase of fax machine technology contain the following elements:
- Speed – the current reliance on phone lines (even digital phone lines) is a limiting factor. Nearly every business with a phone line has an Internet connection these days, and new fax machines should be able to connect directly to it and be able to receive faxes through it. This dual technology allows faxes to be sent at much faster rates.
- Flexibility – with much of the business world switching to a paperless model, fax machines should be capable of sending and receiving electronic files as an alternative to using paper.
- Security – despite widespread belief that faxing is secure, that’s not the case. Anyone with the right technical knowledge can eavesdrop on a fax transmission and duplicate it, since all faxing over phone lines is based on the same type of compression and contains no encryption. Also, fax machines are often stored in unsecure places. Changes are needed to allow secure communication, much like most modern websites use today.
- Ease of use – like any appliance, fax machines must be easy to set up, with clear and simple instructions. This usually means that the machine need to be smart enough to do most of the setup work, with minimal input from the end user. This is required if we expect the average person to buy a replacement for their current equipment.
- Low cost – every year, businesses are attempting to do more with the same or fewer resources. They are constantly striving to reduce their operating expenses.
While some of these elements already exist in large data-center fax systems, only adoption at the individual office level will drive change. By providing these features in off-the-shelf equipment as a replacement to existing fax machines, we can start moving everyone towards a better future of document sharing.