A long time ago (1843 to be exact), a patent for the electronic printing telegraph was filed. And by 1865, the first commercial telefax service was born. The modern fax machine made its debut in the 1960s; while certain aspects of these devices have improved over time — such as increased resolution and speed as well as the introduction of computer fax servers — the underlying technology behind fax has remained relatively unchanged since the 1990s.
You would think that in a world of email, instant messaging, smartphone apps, cloud file sharing, collaboration tools, and electronic signatures, we would have moved on from fax. However, this century and a half old relic somehow manages to hang on in a surprising number of offices around the world.
In fact, according to a 2017 Spiceworks poll, approximately 90% of organizations still use fax in some form (including computer fax servers and fax services), and 62% of IT pros still support physical fax machines. Exactly why has this ancient technology stuck around so long? Thanks to discussions in Spiceworks, we now understand why most organizations just can't let go.
The following quotes from IT pros explain many of the reasons IT departments still have to support fax machines, and why the technology might stick with us for some time to come. Can you identify with any of these challenges?
IT pros share 10 reasons fax machines refuse to go away
1. Older users are just used to physical fax machines
"We will be using a physical fax machine for some years to come yet, mainly because the powers that be are past retirement age and most of our volunteers are as well. They are comfortable with older technology. We have volunteers who don't have computers with whom we have to communicate by phone and postal mail!" -
2. Customers still use fax, so businesses have to as well
"We support an insurance company that has a fax server and e-fax services, solely because many of their customers still use fax themselves instead of email. They have one multi-function printer (MFP) with fax functionality for outbound faxing for this same reason."
Grand Master Boom
3. Compliance standards like HIPAA allow faxing
"One reason to continue to use fax is for regulatory compliance. HIPAA considers faxing a secure method while email is not secure. So you can either go through a painful process of setting up end-to-end email encryption, or use a fax. Also, the FBI CJIS standards allow transmitting of Criminal Justice Information via fax but not via email. Again, unless the email is encrypted end-to-end." -
4. Fax provides a paper trail thanks to call logs and confirmation pages
"The reason why people use fax, it's easier to play ball with a lawsuit. They are protected by wiretapping laws for one. They work well under court scrutiny. Can you prove that fax was sent from business A to business B? Sure. Got fax logs for both ends, can subpoena both of their phone companies and get additional third party call logs." -
5. Many believe fax is more secure than email
"A person cannot read a fax as plain text like they can email packets. It would require a decoding device and access to the beginning of the analog stream, and then only the portion intercepted is even decodable ... A person must gain physical access to either endpoint or the lines in between them to be able to intercept a fax. Faxes from a standalone machine to another standalone machine (with no recording/saving capabilities) cannot be breached from a hacker in his mother's basement." -
6. Fax is cheap compared to expensive alternatives like secure email
"Medical office here, we use fax machines, fax servers, e-fax. It's compliant and cost-effective. Secure email is expensive and cumbersome for referring practices and patients, and EHR secure messaging or texting is not legal for orders." -
7. There is no other choice due to regulations
"We are in the Canadian health industry and have no choice but to use fax ... We are processing 10,000+ pages of fax every week ... all because we have no choice and the government is decades behind on regulations."
8. Fax is convenient: It can scan, copy, and send from a dedicated device
"The process to send an outgoing fax without a fax machine is cumbersome. Scan the document on the copier, go back to your desk and find the scan, attach it to an email or print to a driver to start the e-fax process. That's much more effort than physical faxing (slap it on the machine and pick a number from the address book)." -
9. Fax can serve as a backup communication system
All the big banks still use the fax as the final transaction record for big, multi-million dollar fund moves. Kind of crazy. We just installed a new VoIP system, and I need to keep a couple of analog devices running just in case the network goes down so the big transactions can still go through. I have to keep an analog fax line AND phone line.
10. Many companies are resistant to change
"People just have a hard time letting go of a technology they've gotten comfortable with, especially when it doesn't change for decades."
Will fax ever go away?
Based on feedback from SpiceHeads, fax won't die anytime soon unless some big changes occur. For one, because there are no inexpensive and easy-to-use alternatives to faxes in regulated industries, they'll likely stick around unless something clearly better comes along. And as long as some companies use fax, many of the organizations that work with them need to keep fax around, even if they rarely use it.
Additionally, legislation ties into this issue because sending and receiving faxes are either allowed or mandated by some laws. And the slow-moving legislative process is highly unlikely to ban fax altogether unless there's a clear, better alternative. So for the foreseeable future, we're caught in a logical loop that ensures a bright future for this legacy technology for some time to come.