Searching for Fax Machines

Brad Feld asks an interesting question: Where have all the fax machines gone? In closing a venture deal last week he noticed that many formerly-fax-sporting people no longer had fax machines. How did that happen?

The superficial answer is that over the last ten years most people decided that home fax machines were a useless anachronism in the age of email, so they got rid of them. After all, home users generally used fax machines to receive morning notes from their stockbroker, get some business correspondence, receive the odd joke from a friend, and get hit with oodles of fax-spam. All of those functions have been supplanted by email, so fax machines exited the home.

The deeper answer to Brad’s question, of course, is that few technologies totally supplant one another. Put another way, email no more entirely replaces fax machines than television supplanted radio. More often than not, successive generations of technologies are complementary, and even when they are not there are aspects of preceding generations that make them useful for far longer than most techies would think.

Fax is a case example. While I don’t need a scanned image of a full page just to read a letter from a friend — text-only email handles that aspect of communications just fine — there are some things we lose when we throw out scanned images. Most importantly, we lose signatures. One of the byproducts of sending faxed correspondence was that it included implicit signature security and ID management: I knew you were you because the fax included your signature and it came from your fax number. Sure, you can hack that sort of thing, but it was an acceptable first-pass at security in many contexts, from real estate on outward.

So, does that mean everyone is going to reinstall fax machines en masse in their home for signature security purposes? No. Most people don’t need that security often enough for the purchase to make sense. More likely is that we will continue to struggle along, rarely using fax machines, and then suddenly need one, only to wonder where the heck that formerly ubiquitous technology went.

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Comments

  1. Geoff says:

    That ubiquitous technology, the fax, becomes folded in with other technology.
    There are numerous all-in-one printers on the market. In a sense it is like the convergence of multiple devices into the cellphone. Even if you didn’t want it you get it anyway.
    Worst case you pay up at Kinko’s. The question is what happened to a fax number, was it kept or released?

  2. As someone who entered the workforce out of college in ’99, I was given a fax machine in my first job as a sales rep because the company said we needed it. However, I thought that it was antiquated and set myself up with “JFax” number instead, and had the company print that on my biz cards.
    I don’t think that the fax will go away any time soon. There are still many uses for it and the fact that you can do things digitally via fax through things like Efax and Jfax make it all that much more useful because it allows those who are all digital to converse on a level playing field with more ‘analog’ folks, and vice versa.
    Also keep in mind the importance of fax for small business. Orders, insurance forms, invoices, status updates – so many things are still faxed with surprising regularity because fax is still the lowest common denominator in 24/7 document communication.