Undying facsimile

* Not cool or trendy, but faxes are legal while e-mail isn't

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Do you consider the fax machine high technology or barely technology? The first successful fax test was done in 1863 (yes, 1863). But while many people, including me, don't have much use for faxes, entire industries remain legally bound to them. But at least you can use a hosted fax service and get away from stand-alone fax machines.

Why are industries like real estate, medicine, insurance and legal firms tethered to faxes? Because a faxed signature is considered a legal signature, while a scanned and e-mailed document is not considered legal. Ask your legislators if you wonder how a page with a signature scanned and sent via e-mail isn't legal, but that same page scanned and uploaded to a fax service is. Logical or not, that's the law, and no one seems in a hurry to change that.

So if you're going to use faxes, are there ways to modernize and better manage those faxes? According to MyFax, the hosted model works wonderfully. They gave me an account so I could send and receive a few faxes and judge for myself.

MyFax hosted service accepts scanned pages, or any type of computer file for that matter, into its outgoing fax application. Want to send one or a thousand? Login, type in the number and a name (or pick one from your online address book), upload the file, and click send. The fax goes out nearly immediately, and MyFax sends you an e-mail with reference and billing numbers verifying delivery of the fax to some type of fax machine at the far end.

When I say "some type of fax machine" on the far end, it might in fact be another fax service. My friend Alan uses eFax, a competitor to MyFax. The sample file he and I sent back and forth maintained much better quality between MyFax and eFax than it did going out to and coming back from a standard fax machine owned by my friend LaRee.

My dislike of faxes comes from the inability to use the information, beyond reading the page, once I receive it. If you send me a document in RTF (Rich Text Format), I can cut and paste that information. If you send me a digital image rather than a fax of the image, I can use the image at the original resolution and quality after I receive it. Of course, the ability to modify what I receive is exactly the reason only faxes carry full legal weight as an authorized signature.

How can you modernize faxing? For one thing, if you use a fax service or an e-mail-to-fax gateway of some kind, the exact document you send can be kept and indexed if you scan it to PDF before using the fax service. If you print a letter, sign it, and fax it through a stand-alone fax machine, the original goes into a file cabinet. If you print a letter, sign it, scan it, and send it through a fax service, the scanned version will be searchable by any desktop utility.

MyFax e-mails copies of inbound faxes so you receive the fax immediately. Whether I read the fax in the PDF attachment or log on to the service and download it from the Web site, it's the exact same document. Unfortunately, the received PDF fax files are image files, not searchable documents.

The market for stand-alone fax machines continues to drop, and Gartner recently stated sales will dwindle 12% per year through 2009 (I'm surprised it's that little). Modems have long had fax capability, both sending and receiving. Advances in multifunction devices that include printing, scanning, and faxing features, some of which aren't much bigger than a stand-alone fax machine, make it almost cheaper to buy an MFP device than another fax machine. If you fax plenty, get your own server from RightFax or one of their competitors (the Yahoo Directory has pages of fax services and vendors).

If I had to work with faxes regularly, a hosted service like MyFax would get my money. That way I can receive faxes via e-mail or Web site, download them, print them, and satisfy the legal requirements for that document. Sometimes we have to be convoluted to be legal.

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