Why the fax machine refuses to die

The fax should be a distant memory by now, but the bizarre ritual of transmitting documents over the phone line persists

There are only two types of technology that I absolutely hate with a passion: printers and faxes. Printers are obviously the bane of IT. With all those drivers for every operating system version (usually about 150 times the size of the actual driver file itself), a predilection for jamming, and of course those ever-popular toner explosion scenarios, I'm still scarred by memories of printer disasters.

But I can accept that printers exist because, yeah, sometimes things need to be printed out. Faxes, however, should be banished to the land of RLL drives and the 5.25-inch floppy. Faxes have no need to exist today, yet they're still all over the place. It's maddening.

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

Here's what a fax should be: a little device with a sheet feeder, a reasonably solid scanning element, an Ethernet cable, and no modem whatsoever. It should just be a network scanning function. That's it. You drop a paper document in the feeder, run a small applet on your computer (or on the device itself) that drags the resulting scan into a nice clean (and possibly encrypted) PDF on your system or network, at which point you use any number of methods to send it to someone. Heck, be "old-fashioned" and email the thing. It'll get there in 1/100 the time of the fax, it won't cost money or tie up a phone line, and it will result in far better quality than a low-res scan compressed to squeeze through a data path with the same bandwidth as a piece of bailing wire.

Yet the ancient fax machine survives.

One of the big reasons that people resist mothballing the fax machine is that some items need signatures. I can understand that, but there are already a dozen ways to digitize your signature and apply it to documents. You could also "sign" on your touchpad. These days a signature is all but worthless as an actual traceable indicator of identity, as borne out by the hundreds of times I've signed a POS credit-card machine or delivery service signature pad. Even I couldn't tell you that the resulting signature was mine seconds after I'd signed it. They all look more or less like a random horizontal line that may or may not start with what might be a P. Or an R. It doesn't seem to matter.

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