Segan: Why You Can't Kill the Fax Machine

That's right: I hate fax machines.

In the 21st century, they're an anachronistic 20th century technology — on a par with telex. Or Western Union telegrams (although somehow less charming).

Yet the standalone fax machine — generating reams of less-than-convenient paper documents while you wait impatiently for pages to feed one-by-one — somehow refuses to die.

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I bought an apartment recently. At one point in the process, I had to fax someone 75 pages. It took an hour. Many of those pages, amazingly, were printouts of Web sites.

Now, there are plenty of alternatives to using a standalone fax. Inkjet printers have built-in faxes. The first PC fax modem came out in 1985, for heaven's sake. Better yet, haven't these people heard of e-mail?

At first, I thought that signatures might have to be faxed to be legal.

As a product reviewer, I sign all sorts of loan agreements, and though they're sent over e-mail, I'm always instructed to print them out, sign them and fax in return. Ditto for many of the documents involved in my home purchase.

But Ethna Piazza, a tech-focused lawyer and partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP, told me that e-signatures of various sorts are perfectly legal.

Every time you click "buy" on an online shopping site, for example, you're executing an e-signature, she said.

And although e-mail isn't the best medium for executing contracts, it's possible to agree officially to something over e-mail. Many people just don't have faith that e-mail is official and formal enough, or they don't know the proper way to send and phrase things.

It turns out that the fax is an indictment of the entire tech industry's shortcomings.

That isn't what Christy Stevenson, senior product manager for fax machines at Brother, told me, but it's what I took away from our chat.

The Good, the Bad, and the Painstaking

Think about it. Fax machines sell for $80 a pop. They don't get viruses or spyware. Their interface is a phone keypad, plus one button. (Yes, I know they have more buttons, but nobody uses them.)

When they don't work, the reasons are usually pretty obvious. And they feed stacks of paper.

Setting up a fax modem is a nightmare, which is why nobody does it. "One-button" PC-based solutions usually involve drivers, incompatibilities and dialog boxes. Never mind that you have to stand there, feeding every page into whatever scanner you're using.

The best solutions are the Web-based faxing services, such as Send2Fax and eFax, but those cost money, use oddball file formats, or have truly awful customer service. (One of them lost several of my important financial documents during my home purchase.)

What's more, Web-based faxing services don't get around the signature problem.

I know I could scan in my signature and use Adobe Acrobat or Photoshop to paste it into documents. But that feels like a very twiddly, very geeky solution to a problem that should be simple to solve.

Without a truly usable online sign-and-fax solution, reams of contracts and other important documents remain locked in paper form, unsearchable and difficult to file.

Piazza also pointed out that there's still a certain level of irrational anxiety over electronic transactions in the non-techie world.

Few people worry about waiters jotting down their credit card details or grocery stores tracking their purchases through "loyalty cards," but the idea of personal information being stolen online whips most Americans into a froth of hysteria.

Faxing seems safer. And, thanks to a fear of malicious hackers, it seems weirdly more trustworthy. Thus, the request to fax printouts of Web sites to my bank.

In other words, the tech industry has a long way to go to make software usable for the average person — and to give people faith that their transactions will be safe and secure.

Maybe we should look at faxes as the canaries in the coal mine of e-business. If working and living online truly becomes easy, reliable, and safe — not just for people who can fix their own Windows problems — we'll be able to cast those groaning relics back to the 20th century.

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