The stubborn persistence of fax
I used to feel defensive when people asked me what I did for a living. I suppose it should have come as no surprise that people would do a double take when I answered. After all, I’ve built a business around a technology that is now considered obsolete by most, and was thought to be in decline even in 2002 when I began.
Hello, my name is Darren, and I am a Fax Entrepreneur.
No, you didn’t hear me wrong, I’m a card-carrying member of the facsimile fan club. I have been since 1992 when, while a PhD student at the University of Oxford, I assumed the persona of ‘Arlington Hewes’ of The Phone Company (TPC.INT) and began to learn about HylaFAX (then FlexFax) … industrial software for sending massive amounts of faxes. I’m sure many of you can look back on pivotal times in your lives … a time when many doors are open and choices have to be made, decisions that lead to everything that follows. This was one such time.
So why would anyone in their right mind base a business on fax, you might ask? And if they had made such a mistake, how could they possibly still be doing it?
The answer is simple – despite all of the innovations arising from the emergence of the internet, despite a myriad of collaboration tools such as email, instant messaging, file sharing and social media, nothing comes close to matching the simplicity and elegance of a plain, old-fashioned fax. The market for fax technologies has evolved, of course, but as a fax vendor we have seen no significant reduction in the demand for our products. Though we may no longer see fax machines being used by private individuals in their homes, businesses were always the primary consumer and demand in that sector has continued to grow.
So, why do we still fax?
It’s a legitimate question. I mean, fax has been around since just after the dinosaurs become extinct, right? So why’s it still alive and kicking, despite all the other ways one can get a document from point A to point B? We will explore a few of the reasons below.
- Confirmation of receipt
One of fax’s most compelling features is the confirmation of transmission/receipt. If you’re as old as me, you may recall a time when one printed out the confirmation page and stapled it to the front of a document once it was faxed. These days the confirmation message is more frequently received by email, but the basic principle is the same – you can rest easy knowing the other side has confirmed receipt of your document. In fact, the fax protocol was designed with both per-page and per-document confirmation procedures that not only confirm whether the document was received intact or not, but also permits the re-sending of any pages that did not come through clearly. This is one of fax’s most basic features, and one of the most significant reasons it’s in use today.
- Legally binding
Despite how advanced we have become technologically, the growing acceptance of email as legally binding, and the progress made by Docusign and others in the electronic signature industry, faxing remains one of the most accessible, commonly used and widely accepted forms of transferring a signed document from one party to another. The traditional signature (otherwise known as the ‘wet signature’) contained on the scanned document, coupled with the confirmation of receipt and accurate reproduction of each page mentioned above, means that faxes are still highly regarded in a legal context.
- Speaking of email, wasn’t it supposed to render fax obsolete?
Yeah, I was around before email. There, I’ve said it! As email was introduced and went mainstream, I remember there was a several year transition period where businesses, grandparents (and sometime even parents) did not yet have an email address, but they had a fax. I participated in (and eventually ran) an Experiment in Remote Printing (http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1486) that in simple terms allowed you to send an email to a fax machine. Those days are gone now, and email has itself is heading towards obsolescence as more people move to alternative/diverse messaging and collaboration technologies, but let’s review a few of the reasons email didn’t replace fax as a trusted way to transfer documents:
- Lack of reliable, positive confirmation of receipt
The architects of modern internet email standards understood the value of confirmation of receipt. They provided us with two mechanisms for tracking what happened to an email we’d sent: Delivery Status Notifications (DSNs) and Message Disposition Notifications (MDNs). Unfortunately, each mechanism had a fatal flaw that weakened it to the point of uselessness. The DSN is reliable as a notification of non-receipt and can be trusted to result in a ‘bounce’ message for mail that fails to reach its destination, but it cannot provide you a positive confirmation of receipt to your intended recipient, only that it was accepted for delivery by the users’s email system. The MDN had a lot of promise originally, as it would tell the sender exactly what the recipient did with the email, when it was read or whether it was deleted without being read etc. However, a sender would have to explicitly request MDNs, and a receiver was free to ignore such requests. Privacy eventually won out over utility, and MDNs are rarely seen in email software today.
- The SPAM problem (aka: Tragedy of the Commons)
An email message has almost zero cost to the sender, it’s delivery is essentially immediate, and the sending of email in large quantities is easily automated. As a consequence, unsolicited bulk email (UBE – otherwise known as SPAM) was inevitable, and has become a large drain on email infrastructure worldwide. There’s an arms race between those who send SPAM and systems designed to protect us from it, and because it’s an inexact science occasionally those defense mechanisms get it wrong and legitimate email ends up in a SPAM quarantine. The end result is a significant erosion of trust and confidence in email, and an acceptance that occasionally, emails will just go missing. This unfortunate outcome is an example of the Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals act out of self-interest and behave contrary to long-term best interests of the group. It seems to me it’s pretty much inevitable when considering a free resource … can you recall a time anyone was giving away free stuff and couldn’t get rid of it all? This is not just an email problem, but while traditional postal mail and fax have long been used to deliver unwanted messages, there is a non-trivial fixed cost associated with both a stamp and a telephone call, and it keeps the level of SPAM acceptably low that we’ve never had to put spam filters on our fax machines.
- Email can bounce
While a fax may occasionally have to retry due to a communication failure, the sender receives timely notification of any failure and they can trust that nobody but the intended recipient would have seen the partial document. By contrast, entire emails can be returned as undeliverable as long as 5 to 10 days after they were sent, and more worryingly, the email may be diverted to a systems or email administrator resulting in the unwanted disclosure of confidential information.
- Email is easier to fake
It’s trivial to forge SMTP email. The ‘envelope’ of an email contains only two fields, the sender’s email address and the recipient’s email address and they are rarely checked for authenticity. By contrast, a fax is nearly impossible to forge. Sure, a pair of scissors and some glue and you can fake the content of the fax, but you can’t easily disguise where that fax is really coming from because a fax conversation exchanges a lot more metadata back and forth. The fax call is always going to create a record of the call at the phone company level, and things like the station ID and unique features and capabilities of the sender generate a digital fingerprint of a fax machine that can be easily compared to authentic faxes.
- Email itself is becoming obsolete
It may be premature to predict the obsolescence of email, but the popularity of social media giants such as Facebook and Google+ and of file sharing services such as Dropbox and Box means that there are many ways to transfer documents that don’t involve sending a traditional email message.
- Lack of reliable, positive confirmation of receipt
- Ease of use (aka human factors)
Sending a fax is a very easy, intuitive process that requires only a couple of skills. Basically, if you can load a document into a sheet feeder and you can dial a telephone number, you can send a fax. In contrast, getting that same document into electronic format so that it can be emailed or uploaded to a file sharing site etc. requires significantly more specialized skills. Sure, you still load the document into a scanner’s sheet feeder, but then you face some difficult choices about file format, resolution, color depth, strange things like LZW encoding, single or multi-page TIFFs etc. Choose the settings wisely (monochrome 200dpi) and your 10-page document is 76 kilobytes, but choose something like full color, 1200 dpi and you end up with a file that’s several hundred megabytes in size – large enough for most email systems to reject it and return it to you, the sender.
Staff and their associated email addresses and file sharing accounts come and go, causing a certain amount of ‘bit rot’ or uncertainty that your contact info is up to date. On the other hand, it’s hard to beat the permanence of a fax number. It’s rarely tied to a specific employee, it’s usually as static as a person or company’s physical address and it’s almost always closely monitored. Many of our larger customers run mega-scale appointment booking services, where they take appointments/reservations online and then dispatch that information to affiliated member clinics, hotels, or other such agencies. These member agencies don’t have to run specialized software to interface with our customers, all they need is a fax number, and our customers can depend on that fax number as a reliable way to schedule appointments now, and for the foreseeable future.
Simply stated, a fax transmission is considerably more secure than a voice telephone call. Since we consider it acceptable to disclose confidential information (patient medical information, for instance) by telephone, it follows that we trust the inherent security of a fax conversation. We probably trust it more in fact, because while it’s possible to eavesdrop on a voice telephone call and gain an immediate understanding of the information, the fax transmission tones are opaque and meaningless to a human and highly specialized equipment would need to be employed to extract an actual image from a recording of a fax call. For those who prefer to encrypt the fax conversation so that it’s impervious to eavesdropping altogether, ongoing innovation in T.38 Fax Over IP (FoIP) technology (draft-ietf-mmusic-udptl-dtls-08.txt) promises that end-to-end transport layer security will soon be available.
- Fax Over IP
Speaking of T.38 Fax Over IP (FoIP), this relatively recent innovation to fax transmission allows two T.38 capable endpoints to speak to one another using data packets instead of actual audio. This makes it possible to completely bypass the audio-based Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), or to route a call over a data network for some legs of the call, then connect it to the PSTN for the last mile. In the case of our Power-T.38 service we act as a gateway between T.38 and the PSTN, permitting any customer who connects to us with a device that speaks T.38 FoIP to send and receive calls via the PSTN. When a customer no longer needs to connect to the PSTN, they can eliminate costly hardware such as PCI interface cards. More importantly though, independence from PCI-based fax cards means that fax software operates well in virtualized environments such as VMWare ESXi and Microsoft Hyper-V, environments that have become commonplace in today’s modern data centers.
- Standardization permits automation
Fax machines transmit image data in a very standardized image format (TIFF). No matter what form a document took originally, the sending fax machine will always convert it to TIFF. The automation of large-scale fax reception is easily achieved by using fax server software, and the single file format of received images also lends itself to automated document management workflows using software such as Documentum and Alfresco.
- Lowest common denominator
Now, Occam’s razor would suggest that if there are multiple plausible explanations for why fax is still going strong well into 2014, the simplest explanation (the one with the fewest assumptions) is usually best. Despite all of the various reasons outlined above, there may in fact be a more simple explanation. It could well be that when unrelated parties are trying to exchange a document, they default to the one method they are confident they can each support: the plain, old fashioned, facsimile. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely we’ll see fax go away any time soon!
I founded a company dedicated to building enterprise scale fax infrastructure in 2002. At that time, I was supremely confident that fax would remain popular for many years to come, but that was 12 year ago! If I’m honest, I figured fax would eventually be relegated to a niche market, and that our long-term strategy would be to focus on selling to the ‘Long tail’ (a phrase coined in 2004 by Chris Anderson) of a declining fax technology market, while simultaneously pivoting (* see below) to some other emerging technology to infuse our company with growth and long-term viability. To my surprise, however, our fax line of business has continued to grow and it shows no sign of letting up any time soon.
I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about why that might be, and have outlined many of those thoughts here. In the simplest terms, and in the final analysis I think fax is just exceptionally well suited to the task of moving a document from A to B and confirming that B received that document. Although we have a myriad of ways to do that in today’s tech-laden, communication-oriented world, it’s hard to match the simplicity and effectiveness of an genuine, old fashioned fax.
* We did actually make that pivot, launching our Telephony Depot business unit in 2006, which focused on the growing popularity of Asterisk, Freeswitch and the myriad of other “Open Telephony” products that revolutionized the business telephone market.