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The Evolution of PC Fax : Transmission Technology Improves but Bugs Persist

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Technology buffs long considered facsimile a stone-age invention, a tawdry substitute for the real computer communications that would help bring about the “paperless office.”

Somewhere along the way, the paperless office got buried beneath an unexpected avalanche of faxes. But the very success of fax has spurred the development of a set of computer-based fax products that may help fulfill the elusive promise of effortless electronic communications.

The principle behind the basic PC fax board is simple: Install one in a personal computer or on a computer network, and you can receive a fax and print it out. Or you can do the reverse, sending off anything in your computer to a remote fax machine.

Computer-generated fax also boasts better resolution than regular fax. The notorious “junk-fax” generators, who send advertising to thousands of fax machines at a time, truly appreciate the PC fax’s capacity for sending multiple copies automatically. PC fax, indeed, can be a boon for all those who, by choice or chance, do most of their work on a PC.

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Early Versions Complicated

“Increasingly, the important information we need to do our jobs will be on a PC, and if you want to share that with someone, you’d want to do it by pushing a few buttons,” said Richard Gough, manager for communications products at Intel’s personal computer group. “We’re very bullish on the fax board opportunities.”

This all sounds nice, though in fact things are not yet so simple. Fax boards in their early incarnations--and they’ve only been around for about three years--violated the basic principle that made fax so successful: ease of use. Some products required a string of cumbersome commands to operate, as opposed to the crude simplicity of sticking a piece of paper into a machine.

And sending a paper document by PC fax isn’t very practical, as it requires an expensive document scanner. Furthermore, when a fax is received in a PC, it can only be viewed or printed out. The computer can’t actually work with the data without an expensive software program called an optical character reader. That’s because a fax is a graphics file, a literal representation of the physical appearance of a page, rather than a data file in which letters and numbers are stored as computer bits.

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The result of these shortcomings? “PC fax is pretty much a drop in the bucket right now,” according to Judy Pirani, a market researcher with the firm BIS CAP International. Just 40,000 fax boards were installed last year, she said, compared to 1.125 million fax machines.

But help has arrived and more is on the way. Major electronics companies such as Intel, Hayes and AT&T; have stirred themselves to the potential of PC fax, and a new set of advanced products is emerging that makes PC fax much easier to use and vastly extends its functions.

PC users who invest $500 to $1,000 in a fax package can now get easy-to-use systems that operate automatically, without disturbing other computer operations, and provide a variety of special features. PC fax, in fact, will soon have most of the characteristics of that technologist’s dream, electronic mail.

“As a universal electronic mail system, fax already exists,” observed Hugh Mackworth, marketing vice president at Palo Alto-based Gammalink, a pioneer of personal computer fax. “Every business has access to a fax machine, so everyone now has an electronic mail address.”

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Conceptually, Mackworth said, the company now regards fax machines not as stand-alone devices, but as “remote printers and scanners for computers.”

Need Same Board

For PC fax to be a real full-service electronic mail system, though, what’s still needed is a way to transfer documents between two computer faxes in a format that allows them to be edited (or massaged, as data junkies like to put it), just like any other computer files. Philip Begosian, chairman of a key fax standards committee and manager of software development at Milpitas, Calif.-based Xecom, explained that while some fax boards permit this type of direct file transfer, such capabilities work only if both parties have the same brand of board.

That situation, however, is changing. “Every company had recognized the significance of file transfer, but they realized they were not benefiting from it and had to get together to decide how to implement it,” Begosian explained. The result was a recent agreement on a U.S. standard for file transfer among PC faxes, which vendors are expected to incorporate into products beginning this fall. In contrast to traditional PC-to-PC linkups using modems, which require the would-be correspondents to fiddle with various settings and hope for the best, fax file transfers will be as easy and reliable as fax.

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An arriving document might even come with a message that flashes across the receiver’s screen, alerting him to the contents. “This is exactly the type of activity that is going to provide a platform for this market to develop,” said Garry Betty, vice president for sales at Hayes, the large modem company that recently purchased the technology of market leader JT Fax. “The keys to the development are going to be software and standards.”

File transfer, moreover, is not the only innovation that will make fax more of a full-function communications tool. Work continues on further additions to the so-called Group 3 fax standard that will eventually allow higher speeds, error correction, better resolution and serial ports to connect fax machines with computers.

Major Firms Involved

With these innovations, it’s not surprising that PC fax boards are no longer the exclusive province of obscure Silicon Valley enterprises. Intel, the big semiconductor company, has gotten into the game with a widely admired fax board, AT&T; now has a fax product, and even IBM sells PC fax devices that it buys from Gammalink. These firms are expecting broad interest in computer-based fax in the corporate world, where the devices can be installed in computer networks or large computer systems and used by many people.

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And as the boards proliferate, so will the possible uses. Gough described a new 24-hour-a-day service in which Intel customers seeking technical information can call a phone number, follow a series of synthetic voice commands, punch in numbers on the telephone and get an Intel PC to automatically fax the needed documents.

Dataquest, a market research firm, expects that fax boards will account for 15% of the total fax market by 1993, against just 3.6% today. So 15% of those greasy faxes that are now cluttering desktops will sit neatly in computer files. Not quite a paperless office, perhaps, but it’s a start.


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