The fax machine remains a key part of many businesses as it is unhackable © FT montage

A snippet of tech news you are unlikely to read elsewhere: next month, Premier Inn, one of the UK’s biggest hotel chains, will remove the fax machines from the back offices of its more than 750 sites.

Fax is the technological equivalent of tinned carrots. Just as canned vegetables of all kinds amaze by their very existence, it is surprising that any business still has a fax machine.

With email, document sharing services, digital signatures and scanning apps on smartphones, it is hard to see what this venerable technology brings to the office party. Yet Premier Inn could come to regret its decision to dump this technology, which still plays a bit-part in the hotel trade.

I know the owner of a company with a thriving business who is installing fax servers — office systems that integrate fax into computer networks. He tells me one client, the Swedish clothing retailer H&M, has returned to using fax after spending four years trying to ditch it.

“It was so entrenched in what they do, they couldn’t get rid of it,” says Dennis Buller of AMS, a company in Bournemouth on the English south coast. His business has fax installations in 2,000 companies, including Honda, Aldi supermarkets and the Bank of Portugal — whose system, Mr Buller says, can handle thousands of faxes simultaneously.

This survival against the odds seems baffling. A hatful of tech products came and went during fax’s reign, from dial-up internet to pagers; personal digital assistants; CD Rom, MiniDisc, VHS and its successor DVD; and even MP3s, which officially died this month.

So what does fax offer the law firms, financial institutions, government offices, health systems, retailers and others that still use it?

The Fax Authority, a website that promotes the joys of fax (although does not list its own fax number), makes the point that fax can be quicker than newer technology.

“Drop a piece of paper into the document feeder, press 10 digits and a green button and your information is transmitted,” it says. “No need to scan to a computer, realise the document is upside down, then go back and re-scan it, go back to your computer, look up someone’s email address and then send the document.”

It is also, they point out, an easy way to send signatures without these precious pen-flourishes touching the internet.

Advocates point out the way faxes give you a confirmation sheet — a hard document proving that you have sent a fax and that it has been received.

Then there is security. “This is what makes it essential for some businesses,” says AMS’s Mr Buller, who argues that while email can be hacked, it is highly unlikely to happen with fax. “You have a full audit trail on the server of everything coming in and out,” he adds.

Indeed, after a major hack of Sony Pictures’ IT system last year, the company’s outgoing chief executive, Michael Lynton, announced that he had gone back to faxing handwritten notes to ensure privacy.

Cultural factors have helped. In Japan, fax remains popular for sending notes, largely because handwriting is valued.

Even so, fax is not a big part of most people’s working lives. New machines, made mostly by Japan’s Brother, are available only on special order from stationery stores. Not surprising considering they are almost given away on eBay.

Brother, which made typewriters in the UK up to 2012, would not tell me how many fax machines it sells, but said its data indicate UK fax sales across all brands in 2016 totalled just over 15,000 machines.

A quick poll of friends and colleagues similarly suggests fax is surviving — just about.

“I think we have the capability in our multi-function printer devices but wouldn’t know if they’ve actually been connected,” reported a City lawyer.

A friend at a government regulatory body wrote: “I have been here five years and I have never heard any reference to a fax machine. If there is one it is part of another machine that is still relevant or in a cupboard.”

“We dumped the fax machine years ago, but we receive them directly into the server, but only from German, Swiss and US businesses,” reported an optician.

A Premier League football club lawyer said fax was used in soccer transfers until as recently as two years ago, but no longer.

A marketing director at a Swiss company said: “Our business cards have a fax number, our legal documents include it, but we neither send nor receive faxes. The machine sits connected year after year but nothing ever comes through.”

A farmer said he receives crop reports by fax. Oddest of all, a contact at an electronics company said his office fax mostly receives spam, this principally for car leasing deals.

A spammer who uses fax surely either needs to go back to spamming school — or has discovered a gap in the nuisance mail market.

Twitter: @TheFutureCritic

Get alerts on Data protection when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article