Do you still NEED a fax?

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Do you still NEED a fax?

We're not saying you should go about your trusty old fax machine with a baseball bat, Office Space style (though it does indeed sometimes feel good to be a gangster). But is having a fax machine still an office necessity? The answer might not be as clear as you think.

Here at BIT we've been discussing the role of the humble fax machine for some time. Three years ago, we asked Why won't faxing die? and shortly after explained how you can use fax-to-email services instead of a traditional fax machine. And in February last year we said It's hard to believe the fax machine is still here. But it is.

Something we have noticed in the last couple of years is the presence of a fax number on a business card has slowly become the exception rather than the rule. People have largely shifted to exchanging documents as email attachments, or via file-sending services such as Hightail (especially where large files that would clog inboxes are involved) or file sync and sharing services such as Dropbox.

Small business owners that operate workshops, cafes, shops and so on are tied to a particular location. Yet many businesses are mobile (think in terms of consultants working on their clients' premises or from coffee shops and hotel lounges, as well as independent tradies such fencers), and a fax machine doesn't fit that model. If they really need fax facilities, a notebook can be combined with mobile broadband, a fax to email service, and a portable scanner such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i - but faxing and mobile working aren't always a great fit.

Some people are still advocates of the 'security' of faxes - one document out from your end, one in on the recipient's end and no phishing or falsifying - but it is difficult to tell whether the pages you receive are really true facsimiles (that's what fax means, remember?) of an actual document or one that's been tampered with, perhaps by digitally pasting a signature onto a letter that the purported sender has never seen.

And while there are ways to minimise the risk of faxes being read by people other than the addressee or an authorised colleague, they need to be applied at the receiving end and so you have no real control over who sees the supposedly confidential faxes that you send.

And in SOME situations, faxes can be inefficient, as they are not machine-readable without OCR software, and that's rarely 100 percent accurate. Did someone order 10,000 nuts and belts?

Think about what you're trying to achieve: if the object is to exchange contracts, then you need to be confident that the two copies are identical. Exactly how confident would depend on the importance and value of the contract. But if a customer is still in the habit of sending payment advices to you via fax, for instance, changing them might not be practicable. 

Even today, going cold turkey on faxing could still be a risk. If you rely on a lot of suppliers, especially low-volume, specialists, demanding they ditch the fax could send them into a spiral of confusion. In general, we would recommend a consultative approach - few small businesses can afford to alienate their customers or suppliers.

Just don't be too quick to throw away the fax machine you've taken out of service. Even if you've disconnected its phone line to save money, you can always get it out of the cupboard and plug it into another line if you find yourself in a situation where someone - perhaps a bank or insurance company - will only receive a particular type of document via fax or post.

And of course, you should consider investing in a serious piece of multi-purpose hardware. A "does stuff with paper" device that can scan, copy, collate, fax, email, generate PDFs and more. Interested? Watch this space...

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