Lowly Fax Still Essential to Business, Study Says
December 13, 2011 Alex Woodie
You can add one more item to the list of man’s creations that were supposed to have died out by now but hasn’t: the fax machine. When it was first invented, 168 years ago (no that’s not a misprint), the fax revolutionized the way we viewed documents. Today, despite the growing use of unified communications (UC) over IP networks, the lowly fax machine is used daily by an estimated 40 percent of workers at small and medium sized businesses, according to a recent Intel study.
When the Scottish inventor Alexander Bain received the first patent for a chemical mechanical fax type device way back in 1843, he could not have perceived what a lasting impact and legacy his invention would leave. In 1865, the Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli built on Bain’s design, and introduced the first commercial telefax service between Paris and Lyon, a full 11 years before Alexander Graham Bell patented the first telephone, according to Wikipedia’s fax entry.
The fax would continue to be a mainstay of Western business for the next 100 years. Even as the minicomputer and PC revolutions changed the landscape of business IT from the late 1970s to the late 1990s, businesses still relied on standalone fax machines to share business documents and complete transactions with customers and trading partners.
But clearly, by now, something should have replaced the fax machine as one of the go-to communication devices underpinning Western economies. Corporate phone systems have transitioned from the PBX to IP-based systems, and even small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are partaking of the bounty of cheap and easy to use IP-based UC systems that combine phone, video, instant messaging, and document sharing, all wrapped up with a blanket of SIP (session initiation protocol)-based presence-awareness.
That largely hasn’t happened, according to the Intel Small Business Index. Released in early November, the latest index found that a fax machine is used daily by about 38 percent of IT decision makers and about 41 percent of IT users. By comparison, only 17 percent of decision makers planned on getting an iPad or tablet. The conclusion of the study is that “legacy technologies” are still playing a major role in many SMBs.
What is it about the fax, then, that leads us to stubbornly hold onto our fax machine like it was some vintage AS/400? As it turns out, the longevity can be traced to two facts about fax: it’s reliable, and it’s secure. (Kind of like that 15-year-old AS/400 you still have running in your data closet.)
“It Just Works”
When he took over the role as CEO of Quadrant Software last year, Steve Woodard says he was amazed at the amount of fax he saw in use at Quadrant’s customers. Since Quadrant earns a good percentage of its revenue selling fax solutions–including production X86-based fax servers, IP-based fax solutions, and connecting it all into ERP systems, IBM i spool files, and email systems–Woodward was afforded a unique perspective on fax.
“It’s astonishing how many people are dependent–not just using, but dependent–on fax,” he tells IT Jungle. “I hate to say it, but it just works. I’ve got Fortune 100 companies that are using some of our products, the DOS-based fax severs, and they’ve been using the same box for 18 years. For a Fortune 100 company, it’s just too painful to move, because the stuff just works.”
Security can also be a big plus in fax’s benefit, Woodard says. “There’s an inherent level of security with fax, even more so than sending something as an email attachment,” he says. “There’s a certain amount of handshaking that has to happen. You put in a destination number, it guarantees that it gets to that number, or it doesn’t go.”
Of course, there’s one big flaw in the fax security story, and that is the fact that a sensitive document may be floating around the department fax machine, or more likely the multi-function printer (MFT). There’s also the possibility that a fax gets sent to the wrong number.
But eventually, Woodard sees traditional fax workloads gravitating to fax over IP (FOIP), a class of solutions that’s estimated to be growing at an annual rate of 14.5 percent. “As people move to SIP-type phones or IP-based UC systems, I think you’re going to find more people will take advantage of doing IP fax over time,” he says.
FOIP still works like a fax, and affords users that fax-like ease-of-use. The main difference is that it uses the public IP network, so encryption is required for sensitive information. “If you’re sending a fax to somebody’s phone number, even over IP, it still will guarantee that it gets to you and it won’t be sitting on an Exchange server somewhere. It won’t be sitting somewhere else where it might be able to get read, or it might get hacked.”
Meanwhile, Quadrant will be dusting off its FOIP technology and unveiling a new release of its FOIP solution early next year. It’s too early for Quadrant to talk about it much, but Woodard assures us that the new solution will work with the IBM i platform.