Networking & Communications

Will The Fax Machine Ever Actually Die?

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 analogue phone lines. Sometimes while paying long-distance charges! The mind boggles.

Paul Venezia

Though that little rant is almost three years old now, it’s still as relevant as ever. Like the telegram, it’s a technology that has its origins in the 1800s, continues to gather dust but never quite retires for good. The fax machine still sits in the office, not-so-quietly mocking all the new technology techsperts said would kill it off. But why?

So Who Still Uses The Jurassic Park Of Technology?

As long as the internet has been a viable medium for consuming self-important opinion pieces, people have been asking why faxing is still around. It’s slow, it’s costly and it’s inefficient in almost every possible respect. Ask professionals  what technologies they think will soon be extinct and fax is near the top of the list, yet ask them how often they send a fax and a significant minority say a lot.

It’s hard to get hard figures, but the consensus is that faxing is in decline, but stubbornly refuses to be completely phased out. Apparently Vanity Fair were still faxing in 2012, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they still did, while North and South Korea recently exchanged some mildly threatening messages through fax late last year. Industries such as Law, Banking and Medicine still use faxing, as apparently do the National Football League.

But the main supporter of the fax is Japan. I wrote about this briefly a while ago, but Japan really, really loves the fax machine. According to figures bandied about online, there are 93 fax machines per 1000 people in Japan, almost double the figure in the US. The Washington Post claims 59% of Japanese households have a fax machine compared to the 3% in the US, and business penetration is closer to 100%. The Beeb, meanwhile, claims the fax machine is a crucial business tool to 88% of Japanese businessmen according to one survey.

But, WHY?

There are various reasons why there are pockets of fax resistance, often revolving around the fact it’s a legal, hard copy that’s traceable and usually a secure way to send documents. Signatures for documents are also often a reason. In Japan, it’s more engrained into the culture than most other places, fits into the culture of handwriting and is a throwback to the early days when Japan was well ahead on mobile internet but lacking on the fixed line front.

With the recent NSA revelations there may be a valid point on the security front, but I think going the way of the Russian Guard or Indian High Commission and switching back to typewriters isn’t the direction we should be going. The biggest reason the fax machine lives on is the culture of people who use them. They’ve been using fax machines for years, and don’t want to break that habit for whatever reason; whether it’s difficulty getting to grips with new tech, worries about security/legal issues, or plain old stubbornness.

The Paperless Office and the Post-Fax Generation

I’m all for standing up for tangibility in the digital age. You only have to look at my CD & Vinyl collection or the endless Post-Its scattered around my desk for proof. But I’ve never sent a fax in my life. I barely have a clue how to. I’ve never needed to, and can’t foresee a situation where I would (unless Facebook really did add a ‘Fax’ button to its site).  And, with the odd exception, the vast majority of people I know in my age bracket are the same. The few that have [including lawyers] think it’s a pain and use email or some other service 99% of the time.

And why wouldn’t we? We have Cloud services for sharing, digital signatures for signing, e-faxing, numerous other apps for digitising everything, and the dream of the paperless office to aspire to. And maybe that’s how the fax will die; Gen Y and the Millennials will just ignore it to extinction. No big hoo-hah, just a plain old ignorance and indifference. It may take a while, possibly until some of the Gen X-ers are retiring, to truly kill off the fax machine. And who knows, it may actually leave Japan one day too.

Do you still use Fax machines? Will the technology ever die off? Comment below.



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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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