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October 1999

Robert Vahid HashemianJust The Fax (And Maybe Some Unified Messaging)


Back in August of 1997, I wrote a Reality Check column in CTI magazine titled "Fax Can No Longer Be Disguised." In that column, I made a comparison between fax and e-mail technologies, arriving at the conclusion that e-mail is a much simpler and superior form of communication, and expressing my hopes in the eventual demise of fax in favor of e-mail. I received a few interesting responses, one of which was sent in by fax starting with the words “Hashemian is wrong!” My colleagues had a good time with this comment, repeatedly reminding me that I was wrong.

More than two years have passed since that column, and we have seen great advancements in many technologies, including fax. My death wish for fax has not only remained ungranted, but fax seems to be flourishing even in the Internet-crazed era. Now, if you think this column is going to be one of those “I have sinned” confessions, don’t hold your breath. My feelings towards fax — while not as negative as they have been in the past — are at best lukewarm. And yes, I still secretly wish that it would go away. But I have come to realize that fax is a prevailing technology, and does have its applications. In my opinion, there are two reasons why fax has continued to prevail, and why it will probably survive long into the future:

  1. People still like paper.
  2. The Internet is still not omnipresent.

We still have not been able to achieve the goal of paperless society, and we probably will not any time soon. The pulp and paper manufacturers such as International Paper and Georgia Pacific continue to exhibit strong business fundamentals and their future prospects look as bright as ever. The publishing sector, legal sector, government sector, healthcare sector, and just about any other sector still heavily rely on paper for their activities, which in turn keeps courier services and fax machines in business.

Fax technology has been with us for many years. In 1984, CCITT (Consultative Committee for International Telegraph and Telephone), now a part of the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), adopted Group 3 (G3) fax specifications, and fax was well on its way to becoming one of the most prevalent communication technologies in the world. CCITT G3 specifications cover areas such as modem signaling, compression schemes, and transmission protocols. The G3 standard was of course adopted with the PSTN in mind. Later on, Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) fax transmission standards were adopted as well, and amended to G3.

The proliferation of the Internet has touched every existing technology on the market, and fax has been no exception. Modulated signals traveling on telephone lines have suddenly found themselves squaring off with the packetized method of transmission. There are two ways to achieve Internet fax: Real time and store and forward. Most applications of Internet faxing today are of the latter kind, store and forward. This means that the sender and recipient of the fax are not in direct contact with each other. Internet e-mail is employed as the interface, and Multi-purpose Internet Message Extensions (MIME) are used to send or deliver the contents in the form of Tagged Image File Format (TIFF) files. Real-time Internet fax refers to fax transmission between Internet fax gateways. The real-time fax transmission uses H.323 and other specifications covering the messages and data exchanged between nodes on an IP network.

About a week ago I became familiar with a company that provides store-and-forward fax services to their clients, and I was so impressed with them that I decided to write about them in this column. The company name is jfax.com. (For more information on IP fax services, refer to the Internet Fax Products And Services roundup in the September issue of Internet Telephony.)

From time to time I receive personal faxes, and as much as I would like to convert the senders to e-mail users, some of them are from abroad with limited access to the Internet, but widespread access to fax machines. My home PC is equipped with a fax modem and fax software, but I don’t like to leave it on all the time, so I use it sometimes to send faxes, but never to receive. I also have one of those six-in-one multipurpose home office fax machines that I purchased a couple of years ago. For the most part, I have been very satisfied with it. It’s a plain-paper fax machine, a telephone set with built-in caller-ID, a scanner, a printer, a copier, and an answering machine. It is also capable of distinguishing between fax tones and other calls. This feature is important since I have the fax machine connected to my home number to correctly sort out the voice and fax calls, but this feature is not flawless. Occasionally, people have to try a couple of times before the fax machine wakes up and accepts the fax. Also, if I am away for a few days, I don’t know about the received fax until I come back. Finally, I (like many others) am forgetful about replenishing the paper tray or replacing the toner, so faxes will be rejected due to paper outage (if the memory overflows).

Until a few days ago, I had to live with these limitations, but then I heard about jfax.com. I decided to surf to their Web site and check it out, not necessarily expecting anything exciting. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I could get my own personal fax number with faxes delivered to my e-mail address — for free. The sign-up page was a simple and non-intrusive form, and within seconds I had my very own fax number. I immediately fired off a test fax to my new number, and within minutes I had an e-mail with a TIFF attachment of the fax — and no advertisements. Very impressive. In case some of you are wondering how jfax.com makes any money, I suspect they don’t. Not yet. They do offer business services as well as tailored unified messaging and email-by-phone services for a fee, and judging by their free service, I am sure they back these services with good quality.

Like many of today’s Internet startups, jfax.com’s free service allows them to build a valuable database of Internet fax users and somehow use this database in the future to generate revenue. This was one of those cases in which I thought giving up a few pieces of data about myself was worth the reward. jfax.com also offers a free voice mail service, through which your voice mail is delivered to your e-mail box. Have jfax.com forward your faxes and voice mail to your free Web-based e-mail account (e.g. Hotmail), and you’ve got yourself a decent Web-based unified messaging system for your e-mail, voice mail, and faxes — all for free. What are your feelings about these free services? E-mail me and let me know, or if you must — my jfax number is 1-760-281-7278.

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the position of Webmaster for TMCnet.com — your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

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