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When reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant went into meltdown in 2011, operators tried to send a fax to alert authorities in the nearby town of Namie.
Receipt of the fax “could not be acknowledged”, plant operators noted in a report a year later, leading to attempts to reach the town by landline, mobile, satellite phone and finally in person. The town had been devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima crisis.
The use of faxes at Fukushima — fax messages were also sent to notify officials in Tokyo of the unfolding disaster — is a reminder of the hardiness of an apparently outdated technology.
Email may be faster, and cloud-based word-processing systems such as Google Docs better geared to collaboration, but the fax — short for facsimile — survives. It has adapted to the advent of email and has even found at least one new use.
Why does the fax survive? The technology’s virtues for those businesses that continue to see a future in the fax is that it is cheap and relatively simple to use, according to a survey by research firm IDC. It is also regarded as more secure than an email for confidential data such as medical records.
In an IDC poll of more than 1,000 businesses in the US last September, just over half said fax use in the past year had stayed constant while just under a fifth said it had gone up. Very few said they never used the technology.
Peter Davidson, of Davidson Consulting, which researches the fax sector, notes that the ease with which people used to send a fax for, say, notifying someone when they would be back in the office has been transferred to email and text. “But when you send important documents, you want to know [they have] got there, which you can do with the fax. It is also extremely difficult to intercept a fax.” Unless, of course, the interceptor is physically standing next to a fax machine.
Siddhartha Bhattacharya, head of technology marketing at Xerox, notes that digital signatures in PDFs have been widely adopted, but are not always considered legitimate for contracts: “There are many companies that still require an actual signature on the dotted line.”
The fax’s popularity in Japan is associated with the complexity of the writing system — making scanning a written image easier than typing — and the Japanese practice of sending guests a map with invitations.
Many Japanese government and political offices still insist on receiving written communications by fax. The document is passed between officials, who may stamp or initial the paper to create a physical record of who has read it.
The fax also lingers in Israel, a country associated with technological innovation. While business use of faxes has declined in Israel, government offices prefer faxes for transmitting documents. Shally Tshuva, a partner at consultancy Deloitte Israel and author of a report on the adoption of technology in the country, says: “There are two issues. It is partly to be sure that a document is authentic. The second is whether digitisation helps those who are already at the [socio-economic] high end, and widens gaps.”
The perception among some in the Israeli public sector, he says, is that poorer social groups may be less adept at scanning and emailing documents, while even blue-collar workplaces such as garages will still have a fax machine.
More generally, however, the fax machine has been steadily supplanted by computers with internet connections. The UN’s telecoms body, the ITU, stopped gathering data about faxes in 2000 although it notes that “some countries have a regulatory or cultural mindset to better accept fax rather than emails.”
As communications shift to faster technologies, there is a competitive cost to companies that continue to rely on physical paper trails. Deutsche Post DHL is overhauling the IT system at its freight forwarding division, where the DHL unit makes heavy use of paper because it grew by acquisition, which involved knitting together companies with their own IT systems.
Stephen Furlong, analyst at Davy, says that has affected its competitiveness with rivals, because making information flow efficiently is particularly crucial in decentralised businesses such as logistics: “The more efficient your information flow, the more you can cut costs and make the right decisions for customers.”
As well as slowing the conduct of business compared with email, fax machines can be irritating to operate. When they were in heavy use, they were a byword for frustration: a fax might not go through at the first attempt, the message might be blurred or faded. In 2002, a fuzzy fax was blamed for a crucial misunderstanding over an order for Germany’s Fuchs tanks by Israel.
However, the internet has not entirely superseded the fax; in fact, it has created at least one new use for it, which is as a way of linking businesses with high and low technology. Customers placing an order on an online food delivery portal can have their message transmitted to a restaurant by fax. The faxed order can then be handed on physically to a delivery man who does not have a fax machine, and may not have a smartphone.
The same logic applies to a big manufacturer dealing with multiple suppliers whose technology may use differing technology levels.
Martin Hager, chief executive of Retarus, a Munich-based company that manages cloud-based communications services including faxes, says: “With a fax one doesn’t need to know who’s at the other end, or what technology they have. You just need a telephone number, and the document comes out the other side — whether as paper or as an entry into a computerised scanning system.”
The use of faxes to bridge high and low tech is not new in itself — faxing lunch orders from an office to a local sandwich shop was familiar enough in the 1980s — but the combination of fax and the internet helps support the creation of new online marketplaces.
As internet businesses increasingly set up in sectors such as domestic cleaning or laundry services, where there are differing levels of technology, the fax has been given a new lease of life.
Customers can place orders on a smartphone, via businesses in Berlin or London, but those orders are often carried out by contractors who need faxed documents.
“On the one side there are the smart chaps in Berlin,” says Mr Hager. “And on the other are people who need delivery slips and bills on paper.”