IT may have slipped from its golden age into its golden years, but two decades into the Internet era the fax machine is still, perhaps surprisingly, holding its place in many offices.
While it has been reduced to a small player in the rapidly growing world of digital communications, “millions of people still use fax machines daily worldwide and probably will continue to do so in the near future”, said Jonathan Coopersmith, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, who has written a book on the history of the once ubiquitous office machine.
Even more surprising, people and companies continue to buy new fax machines.
“Sales are dropping regularly due to emails, but the market is far from disappearing,” said Nicolas Cintre, deputy director in France for Japanese company Brother, the market leader in fax machines.
Around 20 million fax terminals were sold in 2005, manufacturers estimate, while sales today are on the order of several million.
“The market is holding up. Those who predicted the death of the fax 10 years ago were wrong,” said Cintre.
Part of the reason for the machine’s survival is an attachment among “older generations” who spent most of their careers using it, he said.
“Some habits are hard to break.”
It is considered by some as a tool for older employees reluctant to learn new technologies, but the fact that it embraces handwriting — in particular signatures — has also helped the fax avoid obsolescence.
“Fax machines allow sending signed documents, which are considered as originals, which isn’t the case with email,” said Jean Champagne, head of Sagemcom Canada, the unit of the communications equipment company that markets fax systems.
Coopersmith noted that “in most countries, faxing is concentrated in certain areas such as banking, real estate, legal communications and medicine — where a written signature is necessary.”
Regulations may in fact require faxing in some countries, he added.
Champagne also pointed out that faxes offer advantages in terms of confidentiality and security, another reason why the machines remain popular in the legal and medical fields.
“It is nearly impossible to intercept fax transmissions. Documents cannot be manipulated,” he said.
Big in Japan
The fax has aged better in some countries than others.
In the United States, fax machines have pretty much disappeared. Xerox, which built the first machine for the general public, stopped selling basic models several years ago.
But in Japan, where they’ve long been an essential feature of homes as well as offices, faxes are still in widespread use. They were even deployed by the authorities in 2011 to disseminate some information during the Fukushima nuclear accident.
“Per capita, the greatest fax use still occurs in Japan, especially among older people who grew up writing by hand, not typing on a keypad,” said Coopersmith.
But it’s not just the elderly — many Japanese users of varying ages favour the fax for allowing them to send off hand-written notes using the thousands of characters in the nation’s language.
“For many people and small businesses, faxing a written note or a form is easier than typing on a computer or smartphone,” added Coopersmith.
Nearly 1.2 million basic fax machines were sold in Japan in 2014, and sales are forecast to dip to 1.1 million this year, according to the association of telecommunications companies.
“The use of fax machines fell with the massive spread of computers and smartphones, but people over 60 who are not familiar with the new technologies prefer the fax,” said Miyuki Nakayama, spokesman for electronics manufacturer Sharp.
Europe is somewhere in the middle, according to Brother’s Cintre.
In France, some 40,000 basic fax machines were sold in 2013, according to the GfK market research company.
Just the fax, ma’am?
Though sales of simple fax machines are declining, that does not necessarily mean that faxes are disappearing.
Instead, the fax is increasingly being wrapped into ‘multi-function’ or ‘all-in-one’ machines that are gaining popularity in the market. These offer consumers printing, scanning, photocopying and faxing functions.
This is the direction that Brother, Cannon, Epson and HP have taken.
Others are using software to mimic fax functions, essentially sending facsimiles as attachments to emails.
“This sector is booming,” said Sagemcom Canada’s Champagne, who said the ‘faxware’ sector is growing by nearly 20 percent per year.
So even if fax machines eventually disappear, the fax function will endure in other devices in homes and offices
“Faxing will decline as its older users die but it will not disappear,” said the historian Coopersmith.
“If nothing else, faxing serves as an inexpensive and backup emergency communications system.”