Why Are Fax Machines Still a Thing?
The fax machine is kind of useless...until you need it.
Image: Steve Cadman/Flickr
Fax machines are actually kind of amazing when you think about it.
No, really, bear with me for a second and think about what a fax machine does: You take a physical, hard copy document and send it through telephone wires to another place on the planet and then the recipient gets their own physical, hard copy version of that document. And then you get a printout that lets you know they got it, like a retro version of the "delivered" notification on iMessage. And the earliest version was invented more than a century and a half ago. Wut.
But as retro-future-cool as the fax machine is, it seems like it really ought to be obsolete by now. With Google Docs, the cloud, digital signatures, and portable handheld scanners, why on Earth do we still all have fax machines in our offices?
For all our digital advancement, there are still a few uses for fax machines that haven't yet been replaced. As long as there are hard, paper copies of documents, there will be fax machines, and while you might not have sent a single fax in the last decade (or ever, if you're under a certain age), in certain industries, the fax is still king.
"Banks or other commercial organization might like their customers to go over to a website or a mobile app, but they can't really impose that on them because they don't have to power to do that," said Ken Weilerstein, the vice president of research for imaging and print services at IT firm Gartner. "And the ubiquity of the telephone network is a big factor, because there are parts of the country where internet access isn't very good."
He said aside from being a common denominator for big companies to share documents with clients and customers around the world, it's also popular in industries that especially value privacy.
"They tend to trust the telephone network. Everyone knows telephone networks can be tapped but it's an esoteric skill to do it whereas the ability to hack computers and email certainly gets a lot more attention," he told me. "One of the reasons that a lot of finance and healthcare companies have not moved over to the cloud is just that. They don't ever want it to go out of house."
For law firms and government agencies, which still rely heavily on physical copies of documents, fax machines remain the best way to share and send documents. You could scan and email the document, and have the recipient print, sign, scan, and email it back. Or you could just fax it both ways.
Gartner said while sales of fax machines on their own have all but disappeared, most offices are buying multi-use machines (printer/scanner/copier/fax machines) and in developing nations, where more of the population is moving into white-collar office jobs, the use of fax machines is actually increasing. Even high-tech, future-focused Japan has a particular affinity for the fax.
And while it's a cause of major headaches, fax machines play a central role in filing Freedom of Information Act requests here in the US. Many government agencies, including the CIA, won't accept FOIA requests via email; the most technologically-advanced they've gotten is the fax machine. Some smaller state and local agencies, like the NYPD, won't even accept faxes—they require snail mail.
On an average day, the team at MuckRock (an online tool that files and publishes FOIA requests) sends about a dozen faxes to government agencies. Some days, if they're sending a lot of follow-up inquiries, they'll fire off 30 or more, according to Shawn Musgrave, MuckRock's projects editor. (Full disclosure: Motherboard and MuckRock are partners on the Drone Census, and Shawn is a regular contributor to Motherboard.)
Though their office printer has a fax machine built in, MuckRock uses an online fax service to file their requests instead (they email their FOIA requests to the service, which converts it into a fax to spit out a hard copy at the other end). They always request for the FOIA responses to be sent via email, but they aren't always so lucky.
"If the most advanced way that they'll take the initial request is by fax, in a lot of cases they'll respond by mail," Musgrave told me. Since MuckRock publishes all their FOIA communications online, it means they have to scan the physical documents that arrive in the post.
They've even had big government agencies dodge dealing with requests with a very dated excuse: their fax machine is broken.
Musgrave isn't sure he's ever sent a physical fax in his life—possibly during an internship in high school, he mused—but now his work is deeply entrenched in the weirdly resilient technology.
"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," he told me. "It's bridging the generations of technology until the fax just finally goes away."
Considering telegrams were still sent in the US until less than a decade ago, I wouldn't get your hopes up.