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.