Companies and government agencies around the Washington area are snapping up facsimile machines in ever-increasing numbers, and in doing so are revolutionizing how they exchange information.
The story is the same nationwide. After sputtering along in the 1970s and early 1980s, fax sales have taken off recently, propelled by declining prices. The research firm Dataquest Inc. said shipments rose to 417,200 last year from 187,500 units in 1986. For 1988, it is projecting 785,000 in shipments. For 1992, the firm expects a staggering 2.2 million units. The "critical mass" that purveyors of new products so often talk about is here.
Fax machines allow users to send documents to other fax machine owners across regular telephone lines. The machines scan the documents, translating images into digital signals that are converted back into solid images by the machine on the receiving end. Despite slightly fuzzy quality--similar to a multigenerational photocopy--fax machines have become the hot new way to quickly transfer documents, letters, art and other paper work between locations that are miles apart.
Multitude of Uses
Law firms use the machines to trade briefs, lobbyists to circulate ideas on legislation, banks to ask for title searches, public relations firms to blanket the media with press releases. Some workaholics are installing fax machines at home so they can keep at their labors after hours. In a pinch, fax machines can double as copying machines.
Fax machines even have created a new form of junk mail. Every so often, the machine will sputter to life and cough out a stranger's unsolicited advertisement. It will use up a sheet of your paper (perhaps not by accident--the product most often being pitched is discounted fax paper) and tie up the line temporarily so that other, more welcome messages may be blocked.
Facsimile machines have been around in various forms since the 1930s. The older versions required a bit of technical finesse to operate--the paper to be sent had to be carefully rolled onto a cylinder. Transmission took six minutes and often produced little more than a black smear at the other end. They never really caught on.
In 1970, Ricoh Co. Ltd. of Japan bankrolled a California firm in efforts to apply digital technology to the problem. The firm found a way to send images as a stream of zeros and ones, the numerical language used by computers. Quality was better and time on the line was drastically reduced.
Once again, Japanese companies set to work to commercialize an American development. The new technology was licensed in the Japanese electronics industry and marketing began. But high prices--costs were still in the $10,000 range in the late 1970s--limited the size of the market.
Prices More Attractive
Gradually prices have declined. A common price for a fax machine is $2,000, but bare-bones models go for as little as $900. Meanwhile, manufacturers--the Japanese continue to account for almost all the world's production--are upgrading their machines with such features as phone number memory and timers that delay transmissions until late at night when long-distance rates are lowest.
The newest status symbol in the fax world is a mobile model that works off a car's cellular phone.
Why the burst of sales? "No matter what you're doing, if you're communicating with people, chances are a fax machine will make you more efficient," says Scott E. Haven, general manager of Ameritel Communications Corp., a major fax dealer based in Rockville, Md.
R.K. Morris, director for international trade at the National Assn. of Manufacturers, is a fax fan. Not long ago, word got out that the association was pushing a certain position on the free trade agreement with Canada.
"We got phone calls about it," Morris recalled. In response, "we would just put it on the machine. You can get instant reactions. It helps the general dialogue about policy ideas."
Has Superseded Telex
Fax machines are taking over the lead role that the telex machine has played in international communications for decades. With fax, there is no need for operators to spend long periods preparing the ticker tape that drives telex machines. Rates are lower and information flows faster.
Fax is a particular godsend to Japanese and Chinese journalists based in Washington. Their writing system, based on nonphonetic characters, is poorly suited to typewriters or computer screen communications. However, articles written on a piece of paper can be faxed easily to the home office for typesetting.
One of fax's big draws is that it can convey pictures and graphs as well as words. One of Ameritel's clients, an antiques dealer, recently examined a faxed picture of an antique violin that was on the market. Ameritel also is working with District of Columbia police on plans for a fax system that would be used to send fingerprints from station to station.
Every vibrant new industry, however, spells trouble for some old, established one. In this case it is messengers. Fax boosters' most common rave is that they can reduce their use of couriers, who long have been a staple of doing business in Washington.
Federal Express Corp. of Memphis, Tenn., seeing the fax threat looming, made a bid in 1984 to gain control of it with a service called ZapMail. The idea was to outfit the country with a network of high-quality Federal Express fax machines. They were designed to be technically incompatible with other machines on the market, in hopes of establishing a new standard. The project failed and was canceled.
Impact on Market
Company spokesman Jim Coleman said Federal Express sees fax eroding some of the carrier's overnight letter delivery service, but not in a dramatic way.
"It's not going to put us out of business," he said. Much of what goes by fax, he says, formerly went verbally by phone, not by Federal Express or other courier services.
In any case, he said, the company gets about 75% of its revenue from moving larger packages, and it plans to place new emphasis on this business, where fax poses no threat. "They haven't figured out a Star Trek-style transporter," Coleman said. "It's very difficult to move computer components by facsimile."
One brake on fax's growth is that the legal validity of the copies remains in question. Is a faxed signature legally binding? If there is ever a question, many companies will follow up a fax with an original by messenger or mail. Other drawbacks: Thick documents are laborious to send, you can't get signature confirmation of arrival, and faxes aren't pretty--glossy photos and nicely printed papers will always make a better impression.
Bob Brown, vice president of Dependable Courier Service Co. of Washington, said his business hasn't been affected at all by the fax boom, and continues to grow. But he said he plans to tap into the fax revolution by getting a machine for the company. Clients will be able to fax to him documents that his messengers will then hand deliver.
A study by the Electronic Industries Assn. showed that only about 1% of American homes have fax machines. But that is growing, too. Some lawyers and business people install them in their dens. Invariably, there is some personal use.
"Don't worry, the house is easy to find. But let me send you a map. What's your fax number?"