Fax It? Forget It!

Does any hardware device feel slower and clunkier than the fax machine? Here's how to be 100% fax-free.

So you want a state-of-the-art office? Then what's that fax machine doing in your mail room? Does any hardware device feel slower or clunkier than the fax machine? If an incoming fax isn't getting jammed in the paper chute, then it's probably getting tossed out or misrouted by a colleague who doesn't realize that it's for you. How many phone calls do you make or receive that begin with this question: "Did you get my fax?"

If you're smart, then you already avoid fax machines as much as possible. The next step is to expunge them from your work life entirely. What follows is a reality-tested guide to becoming 100% fax-free — to meeting the needs of clients and colleagues without putting up with fax-induced headaches.

Faxes, Yes — Fax Machines, No

Sure, there are plenty of traditionalists out there — plenty of people who insist on receiving faxes. But don't assume that you need a fax machine in order to work with them. Fax software keeps getting more sophisticated and more dependable. It's easy to paper the world with faxes — without going anywhere near a fax machine.

WinFax Pro 10.0 ($120), from Symantec, is the best package now available. Take any document that you have on your PC, and this program will send it to any fax machine that you designate. You can even arrange to send a fax at a later time. The latest version of the software also lets you send a fax to an email address rather than to a fax machine — and the recipient doesn't need to have WinFax Pro or any other special viewing software.

If you have a second phone line, you can use WinFax Pro not only to send faxes on your computer but also to receive them that way. Plus, when you're on the road, you can use WinFax Pro to retrieve unread faxes from your office computer. You can even set the software to delete fax spam automatically. And WinFax Pro now lets you "stamp" your signature on a fax with the click of a button, so you can "sign" a document without having to print it out.

Of course, the latest innovation in faxing without a fax machine involves free Internet-based services that drop incoming faxes into your email inbox. The two leading services are eFax Plus, from eFax.com, and Free FaxPlus, from jfax.com. Both provide you with your own fax number (in most cases, it's a long-distance number). An incoming fax that gets sent to that number is converted into an attachment and then routed to your email address. To view a fax, you just click on the attachment. The convenient result: You can receive faxes from any station where you can log onto your email account.

If you find that you need to send faxes after all, eFax and jfax will accommodate you — for a price. After you pay a set-up fee of $5 (jfax) or $10 (eFax), both services will charge you $2.95 a month. These fee-based services include special features, such as tools that let you turn fax images into editable text. In the case of eFax, you also have the option of sending an email attachment to the service, which will then convert it into an outgoing fax — a handy feature when you're traveling and you don't have time to mess around in a hotel business center.

Coordinates: WinFax Pro 10.0, Symantec Corp., www.symantec.com; eFax Plus, eFax.com, www.efax.com; Free FaxPlus, jfax.com, www.jfax.com

But What About ??

No doubt you're already spinning scenarios in which fax software alone, or even a Net-based fax service, just isn't enough. Say that you're on a shuttle and you read a magazine article with a quote from an analyst that you simply must fax to your colleagues. Nice thought. But the reality is that you'll probably tear out the article, stick it in your briefcase, and forget about it until the next time you clean out your bag.

But there's an easier way to share that quote than waiting until you can get to a fax machine. With the right digital tool, you can capture and store important passages without tearing up magazines. And you can email those passages from your laptop as soon as you get to your hotel room — no faxes, no crumpled paper spilling out of your briefcase. The magic wand that will accomplish that task is the C-Pen 600 ($250), from C Technologies. The C-Pen is essentially a camera crammed into a pen that's about the size of a candy bar. You drag the business end of the C-Pen over a line of text while pressing a button, and the camera captures the text, character by character. (Unfortunately, the C-Pen can't read handwritten text.)

To load the digitized text onto your computer, you'll need a Windows PC with an infrared IrDA port. For many people, that might be a problem, since IrDA ports still aren't very common on desktop computers. The C-Pen does a great job of reading most kinds of printed material. One exception: business cards, many of which use special typefaces that tend to get garbled in transcription.

Of course, there's more to sharing information than copying quotes. What if you want to send an entire article to your coworkers? Scanning a page line by line isn't going to cut it. Wouldn't it be easier to tear out the story, make a photocopy, and fax it off?

Not if you use the HP CapShare 920 handheld scanner ($499), from Hewlett-Packard. The CapShare can grab an entire page in a single swipe. Basically, it's a portable copier that's about the size of a ham sandwich. The device, which weighs 12.5 ounces (including batteries), has a flat edge that you drag across a page and a monochrome LCD screen that you can use to check copies or to zoom in on scanned images. The CapShare uses rechargeable or disposable AA batteries and can hold from 30 to 50 letter-size pages.

Once you've scanned what you want, you can download it to your office computer using a serial cable or a wireless infrared port. The CapShare stores images as TIFF files (a format used by graphics pros) or as PDF files (the format used by Adobe Acrobat), which you can then fax or email from your computer. Do you want to be able to edit the words on a page that you've scanned? Then use Pagis Pro 2.0, the Windows software that comes with the scanner, to convert the page into electronic text. Just try doing that with a fax machine!

Coordinates: C-Pen 600, C Technologies US Inc., www.cpen.com; HP CapShare 920, Hewlett-Packard, www.hp.com

Tame the Paper Tiger

Even if sending and receiving paper faxes weren't a major hassle, you'd still have to deal with the problem of how and where to store them all. So, as part of your move to a fax-free environment, you'll need to digitize the paper faxes that have already crossed your desk, along with those that you continue to receive as your colleagues adjust to your new fax-free regime.

There are plenty of low-price scanners that will do the trick. (Taking advantage of rebates, you can probably get one for less than $100.) But my pick is the OneTouch 8600 scanner ($229), from Visioneer. No other model is as simple to set up or as easy to use, and none does a better job of helping you organize scanned documents.

Setting up the OneTouch 8600 is easy. Just hook it up to a parallel port or USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection on your computer. I recommend using a USB port. Going that route, I went from opening the box to making my first scan in less than 10 minutes. And, true to its name, the OneTouch lets you scan, fax, or email a document, or send a copy to a printer, by just pushing a button on its front panel. Here's another great feature: Using TextBridge Pro 8 — the OCR (optical character recognition) software that comes with the unit — the OneTouch can turn printed material into electronic text that you can edit onscreen.

Two caveats: First, if you absolutely have to fax something, you'll need to get your own faxing software. And second, the OneTouch's 36-bit, 600-by-1,200-dot-per-inch resolution, while crisp enough for business applications, isn't sharp enough to keep graphics professionals happy.

Of course, once you digitize all of your documents, you'll need a place to store them. For archiving really important files, I suggest using a CD-RW drive. RW stands for "rewritable" — meaning that CD-RW discs function like old-fashioned floppy diskettes: They allow you to record (or "burn") CDs yourself, or to make copies that cannot be overwritten. CD-RW drives also read standard CD-ROMs and play music CDs.

The reasons for choosing a CD-RW drive over, say, a Zip drive have to do with storage space and compatibility. Zip drives typically hold only 250 MB of information, whereas a CD can hold 650 MB of data. (And recordable CDs cost only $1.50 each.) More to the point, a CD that you record for posterity is accessible from just about any machine that has a CD-ROM drive.

One of the easiest CD-RW drives to set up is the HP CD-Writer Plus 8200e ($299), from Hewlett-Packard. An external drive that uses the USB port on your computer, the CD-Writer Plus isn't as fast as an internal drive — but at least it won't burden you with a lot of installation headaches. Just plug it in and load the bundled software, and you'll be storing data in no time.

Coordinates: OneTouch 8600 scanner, Visioneer, www.visioneer.com; HP CD-Writer Plus 8200e, Hewlett-Packard, www.hp.com

Sign on the Dotted Line

There are still a few basic business activities that might lead even the most ardent opponent of the fax machine to think twice before scrapping that machine altogether. If a client in a different city needs you to fill out a form, for example, or if your lawyer needs you to sign and return a contract, then you need a fax machine, right? Wrong. There's no reason why you can't digitize your signature, attach it to a document, and then return the material — without ever putting pen to paper.

All you need is a graphics tablet, a device that recognizes scratches and scrawls made by a plastic pen and then translates those marks into digital form. Traditionally used by graphic artists, these tablets are now available in small, inexpensive models that the rest of us can adopt. My choice for simplicity and price is the Graphire ($100), from Wacom Technology. No bigger than a mouse pad, this tablet plugs into a USB port, and it comes with a cordless, batteryless mouse and a drawing stylus. It also includes software that lets you add notes to documents in your own handwriting, so it's perfect for filling out forms that arrive as scanned images, rather than as electronic documents.

If you're worried about misuse of your signature, then check out PenOp Signature (around $199), from PenOp. This software lets you capture and store a reusable digital signature "stamp," and it ensures that your signature won't be misused: Employing biometric signature verification, PenOp can tell the difference between your signature and an attempted forgery. The software can even bind your writing to a particular document, thereby preventing it from being attached to other files or papers. The system is so secure that Congress used it last year to attach electronic signatures to a bill that was then sent to President Clinton via email.

Coordinates: Graphire, Wacom Technology Co., www.wacom.com; PenOp Signature, PenOp Inc., www.penop.com

John R. Quain (jquain@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company contributing editor, appears often on CBS News and on MSNBC. He does not own a fax machine.

Sidebar: Quain's Top 10 Reasons to Forget Faxing

1. Faxes are hard to read. How many times have you called to ask what the illegible scribbles on a fax mean?

2. Faxes waste bandwidth. Sending a fax takes up an entire phone line — the same line that you could be using to download email, surf the Web, or talk to a colleague.

3. Faxes kill trees. All that paper is a waste of natural resources. Score one for the tree huggers.

4. Fax machines waste ink. Ink cartridges don't grow on trees either.

5. Fax machines are slow. Faxes transmit information at an average rate of 14.4 KBPS — much slower than a 56-KBPS modem. And with a fax, you still have to wait for a printout.

6. Fax machines waste time. In the time that it takes you to go to a fax machine, retrieve a fax, and then fax or call in a response, you could have answered a dozen emails.

7. Fax machines waste space. The machines themselves are a waste of valuable office real estate. The paper that they generate is a real space waster as well.

8. Faxes aren't secure. In most cases, fax machines are public. So you never know who is going to see that copy of your résumé sitting next to one.

9. Fax machines are unreliable. How many faxes have you missed because your machine ran out of paper?

10. Fax machines waste money. In the new economy, service calls, busy signals, and decreased productivity are needless expenses.

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