Fax technology spawned a revolution in the workplace


While computers were getting most of the press, a far simpler gadget sneaked in the back door of America's offices and really changed the way many of us do business.

In fact, I would argue that the lowly fax machine has had TC greater impact on our lives than most of the gee-whiz computer technology that soaks up so much of our time and money.

A decade ago, fax machines were a rarity. They were expensive, not terribly fast and not always reliable. Today, they're cheap, fast and everywhere.

In the B.F. (Before Fax) era, if you had to get information from hither to yon, the best you could hope for was overnight delivery and a big Federal Express bill. With a fax machine, you can transmit a document across town or around the world in a minute for the cost of a phone call. Negotiations that once took weeks now take days. Deals that once took days to hammer out now take hours because people can exchange paper instantaneously.

There's hardly a business in the country that doesn't have a fax today. You can fax a contract to your attorney, fax a price list to a customer, fax your lunch order to the greasy spoon down the street and fax a song request to your favorite oldies station. You can even grumble about the "junk faxes" that arrive unsolicited on your electronic doorstep.

Computers were supposed to make communication this quick, but they haven't. In the paperless nirvana, we were supposed to send information from one computer directly to another. But in reality, getting one computer to talk to another is about as easy as mating an elephant with a giraffe.

Unlike computers, fax machines are easy to use. You don't need a degree in operating systems or hours of training. Just print out your document, put it in the fax machine and punch in the phone number. A half minute later, it's gone.

And there's one more messy fact: You may have a computer, but the guy who needs your information often doesn't.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people ask me if there's some way they can get their computer to talk directly to a fax machine, or get it to talk like a fax machine.

The answer to both questions is yes, although whether it's worth the bother is a matter of some debate.

First, we'll talk about fax machines. A fax is really a specialized computer that takes a picture of a document, breaks it into little black-and-white dots and transmits the dots over the phone to another fax, which prints out the dots on smelly paper that fades after 15 minutes.

Although you can spend as little as $400 or as much as $2,000 on afax machine, they all have four basic internal parts. There's a scanner that reads the document and translates it into dots, a microprocessor that handles the conversion, a modem that dials or answers the phone and transmits or receives the image, and a printer which reproduces the transmitted page.

Faxes work as well as they do because all the fax makers have agreed on an electronic protocol for sending and receiving information.

Most faxes on the market today are known as Group III machines. They can transmit a full page at a resolution of 200 dots per inch in about 20 seconds. The nice thing is that Group III machines can talk to older, Group II machines, albeit at a slower pace. You don't have to worry about it. The fax does all the work.

On the down side, faxed documents look as grainy as they do because faxes are made on the cheap.

The scanner makes a relatively coarse picture of the document, which cuts down on memory requirements and transmission time. The printers use thermal paper, which makes it easy to produce an image without expensive hardware, but we all know what thermal paper looks and feels like.

So the fax machine is a compromise. It produces lousy copy quickly and cheaply. But you can read what's on the paper, which is what counts most of the time.

Computers, on the other hand, are much more complex and so flexible that most people can't make them work together. To get two computers to talk on the phone, the people on both ends have to agree on baud rate, parity, data bits, stop bits, transmission protocols such as Xmodem, Ymodem, Zmodem and Kermit (no kidding), as well as trivia such as whether they're using V.32 or MNP-5 error checking modems.

If you and the other guy know this kind of stuff, you can get your machines talking in a minute or two. If you don't know this kind of stuff, it may be faster to send a disk in the mail.

On the other hand, the effort can be worthwhile. When you send a document between computers, you're sending the real thing, not a picture. If I'm writing a book, I can send a chapter to my editor as a word processing file. He can read the file with his word processor, make changes and send it back to me. No retyping, no fuzzy text. It's all there.

Even if we're using different software, most of the better programs today have some way of converting files from one format to another.

Finally, there's a matter of quality. If I transfer a word processing file to another computer, the guy on the other end can produce the document on his laser printer and get the same document I can produce in my office. So the flexibility of direct communications can pay off handsomely.

Next time, we'll discuss the kind of hardware and software that can bridge the computer-to-fax gap in both directions -- and whether it's worth doing in the first place.

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