The Last Fax

The book business doesn’t run on fax machines anymore. My publisher isn’t taking a big risk when it bows to the inevitable and lets its fax service expire this month. The last fax to arrive there that anyone would care about was more than two years ago.

The original idea of the fax medium was of multiple letter-sized pages, scanned on one machine and printed on another. The images were transmitted between the two machines over the telephone network. All that paper was a lot of work, so in recent years, most faxes were composed on computers rather than paper and were received by a fax server that converted them to a digital format for storage. Having a physical fax machine is more trouble than it’s worth unless you receive 50 or more fax pages per day, which means the business office that has its own dedicated fax machine is now the rare exception.

Fax started to give way to digital communications around 1999, but some business segments lagged behind, and the book industry was one of those. As late as 2007 it was taken for granted that routine book business transactions would go over fax, though by then, publishers and booksellers alike seemed to recognize that this was a costly and archaic approach. But it was not until 2013 that the last major book wholesaler shut down its fax office — and saved $1 million in annual expenses. I am told fax capability is still mandatory in the legal and real estate field and at takeout restaurants.

The health care sector, meanwhile, has started down the road to digital communication, partly because of the aggravation that ensues when faxes get lost. Almost anyone can tell a story of an important lab test for which the report got lost, and almost always, that’s because something went wrong with the fax. Add in the potential legal liability for faxing health care data to the wrong place, and medical offices are now trying to find more secure alternatives. As with the book industry, it could take a few years.

Five years from now, fax will probably be used mainly for communication between law offices and the most slow-to-change government offices. The steampunk appeal of fax technology, though, combined with its inherent compatibility with voice communications, ensures that people who want to exchange fax messages will still be doing so for many years to come.

Fish Nation Information Station | Rick Aster’s World | Rick Aster