Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

7 minute read

Technology

Why Fax Won't Die

As long as some continue to insist on faxes, companies keep working to make sending a fax feel like you're not sending a fax at all.

[Fax Machine: Herjua via Shutterstock]

When OrderSnapp, a company that helps restaurants take orders online, works with its clients, it lets them choose how they want to be notified about incoming orders. Some prefer email, and some would rather get push notifications through their phones, says company president Ron Resnick. But a substantial number of OrderSnapp’s clients—somewhere between 30 and 40 percent, Resnick estimates—prefer to have their customers’ web and app orders delivered through a technology that has been rumored to be extinct: the fax machine.

"A lot of the smaller, family-owned or individually owned restaurants, there’s a lot of them that still don’t have Internet access," says Resnick. "They’re not very Internet savvy, or they don’t have an iPad or a mobile device in the store that they can receive the orders on."

Like many businesses in older industries, from law firms to medical labs, fax machines aren't seen as some ‘80s anachronism but as an efficient, reliable, and mostly secure way to communicate—the same way their own customers see their laptops and smartphones.

"Faxing has been there for so long, and they’re so used to it," says Resnick. "It doesn’t cost them anything extra. It’s still a very good success rate with it, as far as them going through."

To bridge the gap between the two eras of messaging technology, OrderSnapp, based in Rochester, N.Y., uses a service called Phaxio. Calling itself "faxing for developers," it’s one of several cloud-based faxing providers whose APIs make it possible to send and receive faxes without ever worrying about loading paper and toner into a traditional fax machine.

"It’s something that we work very hard to keep almost [invisible] for our clients," says Phaxio cofounder Howard Avner. That is, Phaxio lets its customers build faxing into their apps and websites with the same kind of APIs they'd use to integrate 21st-century services like posting tweets or sending email confirmations, without needing to think about the phone lines and screeching modems that make it all happen.

Josh Nankin and Howard Avner, the founders of Phaxio

Some of Phaxio’s customers are established companies looking to phase out their physical fax machines, and some are startups like OrderSnapp looking to work with clients in fax-dominated industries, says Avner. Either way, Phaxio's customers don't want to worry about the gory details of busy signals, line noise, and quirky old fax machines so they can focus on their core businesses. The company advertises simple pricing—7 cents per minute for faxing to and from the U.S. and Canada, 10 cents for other countries—and volume discounts for users with more than 50,000 faxes sent and received per day.

"We’ll work with companies from Y Combinator—it’s not a matter of crusty companies that are trying to use fax," Avner says, citing startups building apps for industries from health care to trucking. "We sit in the background and solve a really complicated problem for them."

Phaxio's one of several companies bridging the gap between the modern Internet and the legacy web of fax. Y Combinator-backed HelloFax is like the HelloSign virtual signature service it begat, but it also offers the ability to send and receive faxes through the web, via email or from cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive. Another service, Free Fax, lets users use a webform to upload and fax a limited number of documents per day, sent for free with a Free Fax cover sheet; customers can also pay to send more faxes and remove that Free Fax logo.

And EC Data Systems' service Faxage, which lets users send and receive faxes by email, through its website or using its API, says it processes more than 11 million minutes of fax transmissions every month. Faxage measures and bills usage in minutes to make price comparisons with traditional phone plans simpler, says EC Data Systems' president Christian Watts.

Relying on external services and software to abstract away the quirks of an underlying technology certainly isn’t unique to fax: Developers routinely use libraries like jQuery to handle the details of browser intercompatibility or tools like PhoneGap to build cross-platform mobile applications. OrderSnapp uses Amazon Web Services to send mobile push notifications and uses the cloud-based voice service Twilio to place automated calls to verify orders, so it’s natural the company would also work with a cloud-based fax provider as long as its customers keep wanting to receive faxes.

The sound of a fax, from "What Sound Looks Like," by Khara Cloutier, 2013.

Skeptics have argued for years that fax has already long overstayed its welcome—that its continued prevalence is just the result of typical enterprise conservatism and older generations' enthusiasm for the printed word and signatures inked on the proverbial dotted line.

But those in the digital fax industry point out that even businesses that have largely migrated records away from paper and aren't otherwise tech-averse still find value in fax. Companies don’t just keep sending and receiving all those faxes out of pure inertia, says Faxage's Watts.

A sense of privacy and security

Faxage's clients include high-tech medical testing companies that need to send confidential results to doctors’ offices, and law firms and other businesses that need a secure and legally vetted way to transmit documents to clients and colleagues. Besides medicine, mortgage banking, insurance agencies, and other highly regulated industries rely on faxes because faxed contracts are generally considered to be as legally binding as a signed-in-person version.

Physicians' internal records may have moved away from paper, but there’s no online data transfer platform anywhere near as widely deployed as fax that offers the same privacy and reliability, Watts says. So companies looking to ditch their paper fax machines switch to cloud-based fax providers, where they can securely upload and download documents and know that the rest of the transmission goes through the medium they’ve trusted for decades.

"Medical is huge, and that’s because email is not considered to be a secure medium, but fax is, in terms of sending people’s medical information around. So that’s a really really large growth area, especially with the push towards electronic medical records, and folks wanting to have it in that format," Watts says.

Faxage and other services including Phaxio advertise HIPAA-compliant faxes for those dealing with medical data, letting users upload and download faxed documents through SSL-enabled web connections or encrypted emails.

What the modern fax experience looks like on Phaxio.

To some, faxes might seem safer than digital communications. Phone lines are vulnerable to surveillance, but cyber-threats tend to draw more attention and thus seem more likely. After the hack at Sony, employees reportedly resorted to using phone calls and fax machines again in order to avoid hackers.

Companies know encrypted and verified email services and other secure document transfer systems exist, but they also know that many of the companies they do business with won’t have the necessary software installed, says Watts.

A medical lab, for instance, can't insist doctors' offices install any particular data-transfer software, but it can reliably assume they have fax machines. Or a law firm needs a way to send someone a signed copy of a contract, and while it could potentially use some sort of digital signature, decades of legal precedent have made it clear that a faxed copy is every bit as good as a mailed document.

At restaurants that deliver to businesses—even restaurants that now use apps like Seamless—customers continue to fax in their orders. For restaurant employees used to snatching printouts from a fax machine, there's little desire to do away with a trusted technology in their kitchen workflow.

"It’s the fact that the underlying business process, whatever it is, is fax-based," says Watts. "And in order for that underlying business practice to change, all the participants in that underlying process would have to agree that they want to change."

Faxes also remain an essential tool for requesting documents from many government agencies. MuckRock, a journalism startup that files and publishes FOIA requests, sends an average of about a dozen faxes a day using an email-to-fax service called Faxaway. (This works provided that government agencies have working fax machines.) "Within the last five years, the only way I’ve used a fax is through this email-to-fax application, which is the most poetic thing imaginable," MuckRock projects editor Shawn Musgrave told Motherboard. "It’s bridging the generations of technology until the fax just finally goes away."

Fax is a little like Microsoft Office, Watts says, in that now that it’s so universally deployed, it’s hard for any competitor to steal too much market share without convincing an entire industry to shift gears.

"In some ways, it’s a good thing, because promoting standards means people know what to expect," he says. "In a lot of areas, the trade-off of it not being quite as fast or quite as sexy is easily paid for by the fact that it’s well understood and it’s glitch free."