Technology Kills a Lot of Industries, So Why Won’t the Fax Machine Just Die Already?

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Technology Kills a Lot of Industries, So Why Won’t the Fax Machine Just Die Already?

If Franz Kafka had written a “Seinfeld” scene, this would be it. After negotiating for two hours, the student loan provider promises to e-mail me the documents. I just need to sign and send them back to end the nightmare.

“You take e-mail, right?” I ask.

“Actually, fax them to us,” she says. “The number’s at the top of the document.”

“Really? I can’t just e-mail?”

“We prefer faxes,” she says. “If we did everything over e-mail, we’d get an avalanche of messages. Things would get lost in the flurry.”

“I guess I can see that,” I say. I know technology often creates as many problems as it solves, but faxing is, well, annoying. I try again. Can’t I, just this once, e-mail back the files? Pretty please?

She only laughs. “We get that all the time, too,” she adds. “We can only take your document via fax — sorry.”

Sheeh. Who faxes, anymore? Well, it turns out, more people than I think.

The fax machine plays a surprisingly central role in Japanese business life. Nearly 100 percent of all companies and 60 percent of private homes have fax machines, according to the Washington Post. Last year alone, the island bought 1.7 million old-school, spool-and-dial fax machines.

In fact, the Japanese still send party invitations, bank statements and shopping orders through fax. It’s a must for business, often used in place of e-mail. When the Fukushima Daiichi disaster hit, for example, operators told the government of its plan to injection seawater, not by phone, but via fax, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But why the fascination with a dinosaur?

Well, bureaucrats want a paper trail to keep track of orders and shipments — they don’t trust the security of electronic communication. It’s such a stalwart that even the Yakuza, Japan’s crime syndicate, swears by them. It seems gang members tell off enemies with a cursory fax, too.

Companies say they’ve tried to modernize. But it’s consumers, they say, that resist — if they don’t offer a fax number, sales and revenues plummet. Yuichiro Sugahara, owner of a bento box delivery service, for example, tried to change to online forms, but after a drastic drop in orders, he quickly switched back. He says his customers like to add very particular requests, and the fax lets them customize their orders in a way that e-mail or online forms just can’t do with convenience.

“There is still something in Japanese culture that demands the warm, personal feelings that you get with a handwritten fax,” he told the New York Times.

But why do businesses insist on fax when we can just scan, convert and e-mail? We can do it to anything and send it anywhere at any time. Fax machines are… well, relics of the Stone Age, yet they still persist around the world.

Heavily-regulated industries — such as banking, finance, law and healthcare — are a big reason sales hold steady. And despite strong competition from cloud-sharing services — like Dropbox and Google Drive — over 35 million all-in-one fax machines were shipped worldwide in 2011 and 2012, according to Gartner. And that doesn’t include single-function machines, which it stopped tracking years ago.

“There are still plenty of fax machines out there,” Ken Weilerstein, a Gartner analyst, told Fortune. “Declining in this space doesn’t mean disappearing by a long shot.”

Despite, or perhaps due to, the plethora of cloud-based services, there isn’t an industry standard for document sharing. “It would take a monumental effort by a large group of different people to all agree on a new standard,” Kyle Flowers, director of marketing at j2 Global, which owns eFax, a service that lets you fax as PDFs, told Fortune.

It lives because, for decades, it was the best and often only way to share documents quickly. Yes, there are faster and more convenient options, but no one standard has emerged to dethrone the king from its place atop the office machine kingdom. And to understand why, we have to delve at its history.

The facsimile transmission has had over 160 years to cement itself as a business-world standard. In 1843, Scottish inventor Alexander Bain received a patent for a method to “produce and regulate electric currents in electric printing and signal telegraphs” — in other words, the first fax transmission.

His work expanded on Samuel Morse’s telegraph — but instead of sending just letters and words, he transmitted graphics. Cobbled together with clock parts and telegraph machines, it looked nothing like today’s machines. A simple stylus, mounted on a pendulum, swung back and forth to “scan” the form from a flat metal surface. It was crude, to say the least.

Over the next hundred years, inventors improved on his machine. By 1955, the first radio-wave fax was sent across the continent. And by 1966, Xerox released the Magnafax — a smaller, faster and cheaper model. The landmark device sent letter-sized documents in a then lightning-fast six minutes. But more importantly, it connected to a phone line, making it easy to install and use.

By the late-70s, companies like Sony flooded the market with even lighter and cheaper units, and soon the fax became a staple of both large and small businesses alike, hitting critical mass in the late-80s.

Since its heyday, fax machines have evolved to stay relevant. Digital lines sped up data rates. Internet and e-mail services, like eFax, took out the bulky machines altogether. Now, software converts and sends documents to the farthest ends of the world. But as the speed of business quickens — and we become increasingly mobile — the fax looks like it’s on its last legs.

After all, we can take a photo of a document and send it over e-mail. JotNot Scanner and CamScanner converts any picture into a PDF, doubling as de facto fax machines. All that’s needed is good lighting for a clear version as clean as a paper copy.

Apps can also send and receive faxes. IFax, for iOS and Android, can open PDFs from e-mail, Dropbox or Evernote. You can also take a photo, convert it, add an electronic signature and send it back — with a level of security so high that even the sensitive medical industry can use it.

You’ll need a machine to receive a fax, the app can e-mail or send a push alert when a document arrives — no screeching, electronic howls. The app is free, but sending faxes costs from $1 to $3 for up to five pages, depending on where you live. It gets expensive for more.

You’ll need a phone number to receive faxes, too. And that requires an in-app subscription, which starts at $13 a month. It’s not cheap, but if you’re a mobile worker or you simply want to give the heave-ho to your clunky, dust-collected fax machine, apps are the solution.

After my futile attempt at convenience, I suck it up and sign and fax the forms back to the student loan provider. I think about signing up for iFax, but after my four-year-old nephew asks, “What’s a fax?” I know I have to take him on a pilgrimage to an actual fax machine — if only to show him a relic that might disappear before he gets his first job. After all, the Smithsonian has old-style fax machines in its archives.

So we head to Kinko’s, where they have one, lone fax machine for general use. My nephew is a whiz with the iPad, but he’s confused. Where’s touch screen? When I tell him it uses buttons, he starts pressing all of them, making it beep and screech and sending the store manager scurrying our way.

I show him how to fill out a cover sheet, stack the papers just right, and type in the number. Then, as he hit the green send button, he watchs with equal parts suspicion and disbelief as it whirred, making sounds and spitting out pages one by one. For $2 a sheet, the 17-page document takes longer to send — and cost more — than I’d like. And my nephew, clearly a member of the post-fax generation, is bored with it pretty quickly.

As we walk out, he still refuses to believe it actually worked — that somewhere on the other side, another machine was printing out that same document, ready for an unseen chain of bureaucrats to process and file it, and, perhaps, to fax it to someone else.

And so the cycle repeats.

He likes how it prints out a confirmation, though, and when we come home, he asks his mom if he can buy a fax machine for his birthday. It’s “fun” to press buttons and “make the machine eat the paper,” he says. And that makes me think: maybe thousands of Japanese businesses, bureaucrats and gangsters are right. Maybe there is something to having a tactile experience when interacting with technology. As everything becomes digitized — electronic vapor floating in the air between machines — there’s still something engaging about an actual machine and actual paper.

Maybe the humble fax machine will continue to stand sentinel along with iPads and 3-D printers, among other wonders of the electronic age, content to gather dust until the rare fax causes it to hum and screech loudly again.

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