Hand­writ­ing not yet on the wall for the once ubiq­ui­tous fax ma­chines


It may have slipped from its golden age into its golden years, but two decades into the In­ter­net era the fax ma­chine is still, per­haps sur­pris­ingly, hold­ing its place in many of­fices.

While it has been re­duced to a small player in the rapidly grow­ing world of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions, “mil­lions of peo­ple still use fax ma­chines daily world­wide and prob­a­bly will con­tinue to do so in the near fu­ture,” said Jonathan Coop­er­smith, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Texas A&M Univer­sity, who has writ­ten a book on the history of the once ubiq­ui­tous of­fice ma­chine.

Even more sur­pris­ing, peo­ple and com­pa­nies con­tinue to buy new fax ma­chines.

“Sales are drop­ping regularly due to emails, but the mar­ket is far from dis­ap­pear­ing,” said Ni­co­las Cin­tre, deputy di­rec­tor in France for Ja­panese com­pany Brother, the mar­ket leader in fax ma­chines.

Around 20 mil­lion fax ter­mi­nals were sold in 2005, man­u­fac­tur­ers es­ti­mate, while sales to­day are on the or­der of sev­eral mil­lion.

“The mar­ket is hold­ing up. Those who pre­dicted the death of the fax 10 years ago were wrong,” said Cin­tre.

Part of the rea­son for the ma­chine’s sur­vival is an at­tach­ment among “older gen­er­a­tions” who spent most of their ca­reers us­ing it, he said. “Some habits are hard to break.”

It is con­sid­ered by some as a tool for older em­ploy­ees re­luc­tant to learn new tech­nolo­gies, but the fact that it em­braces hand­writ­ing — in par­tic­u­lar sig­na­tures — has also helped the fax avoid ob­so­les­cence.

“Fax ma­chines al­low send­ing signed doc­u­ments, which are con­sid­ered as orig­i­nals, which isn’t the case with email,” said Jean Cham­pagne, head of Sagem­com Canada, the unit of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment com­pany that mar­kets fax sys­tems.

Coop­er­smith noted that “in most coun­tries, fax­ing is con­cen­trated in cer­tain ar­eas such as bank­ing, real es­tate, le­gal com­mu­ni­ca­tions and medicine — where a writ­ten sig­na­ture is nec­es­sary.” Reg­u­la­tions may in fact re­quire fax­ing in some coun­tries, he added.

Cham­pagne also pointed out that faxes of­fer ad­van­tages in terms of con­fi­den­tial­ity and se­cu­rity, another rea­son why the ma­chines re­main pop­u­lar in the le­gal and med­i­cal fields.

“It is nearly im­pos­si­ble to in­ter­cept fax trans­mis­sions. Doc­u­ments can­not be ma­nip­u­lated,” he said.

Things are Easy When You’re

Big in Ja­pan

The fax has aged bet­ter in some coun­tries than oth­ers.

In the United States, fax ma­chines have pretty much dis­ap­peared. Xerox, which built the first ma­chine for the gen­eral public, stopped selling ba­sic mod­els sev­eral years ago.

But in Ja­pan, where they’ve long been an es­sen­tial fea­ture of homes as well as of­fices, faxes are still in wide­spread use. They were even de­ployed by the author­i­ties in 2011 to dis­sem­i­nate some in­for­ma­tion dur­ing the Fukushima nu­clear ac­ci­dent.

“Per capita, the great­est fax use still oc­curs in Ja­pan, es­pe­cially among older peo­ple who grew up writ­ing by hand, not typ­ing on a key­pad,” said Coop­er­smith.

But it’s not just the el­derly — many Ja­panese users of vary­ing ages favour the fax for al­low­ing them to send off hand-writ­ten notes us­ing the thou­sands of char­ac­ters in the na­tion’s lan­guage.

“For many peo­ple and small busi­nesses, fax­ing a writ­ten note or a form is eas­ier than typ­ing on a com­puter or smart­phone,” added Coop­er­smith.

Nearly 1.2 mil­lion ba­sic fax ma­chines were sold in Ja­pan in 2014, and sales are forecast to dip to 1.1 mil­lion this year, ac­cord­ing to the as­so­ci­a­tion of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies.

“The use of fax ma­chines fell with the mas­sive spread of com­put­ers and smart­phones, but peo­ple over 60 who are not fa­mil­iar with the new tech­nolo­gies pre­fer the fax,” said Miyuki Nakayama, spokesman for elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­turer Sharp. Europe is some­where in the mid­dle, ac­cord­ing to Brother’s Cin­tre.

In France, some 40,000 ba­sic fax ma­chines were sold in 2013, ac­cord­ing to the GfK mar­ket re­search com­pany.

Just the Fax, Ma’am?

Though sales of sim­ple fax ma­chines are de­clin­ing, that does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that faxes are dis­ap­pear­ing.

In­stead, the fax is in­creas­ingly be­ing wrapped into “mul­ti­func­tion” or “all-in-one” ma­chines that are gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in the mar­ket. These of­fer con­sumers print­ing, scan­ning, pho­to­copy­ing and fax­ing func­tions. This is the di­rec­tion that Brother, Cannon, Ep­son and HP have taken.

Oth­ers are us­ing soft­ware to mimic fax func­tions, es­sen­tially send­ing fac­sim­i­les as at­tach­ments to emails.

“This sec­tor is boom­ing,” said Sagem­com Canada’s Cham­pagne, who said the “faxware” sec­tor is grow­ing by nearly 20 per­cent per year.

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