Seven zombie technologies that just won't die

From beepers to COBOL, some tech keeps lurching forward, despite the smell of rot.

By , ITworld |  Unified Communications


Fax machines

Oh, you can't get rid of it this easily

Source: aliceinreality/Flickr

The first experiments in transmission of images by wire took place in the 1840s, but the fax machine as we know it didn't really enter our everyday life until the 1970s. But still, just imagine how advanced it must have seemed then! You could bypass the post office or the telegram services and send a document directly to anyone else in the world who had a phone line. Practically magic!

Nevertheless, it seemed like every technical advance in the decades since served only to make fax machines look shabby. Digital and color scanning technologies made grainy black and white fax sheets look ugly. When compared with one-click email, the process of faxing could be quite slow, especially if there were multiple pages involved. Faxes would either interfere with phone calls or require their own dedicated (and paid for) line. And of course the moving parts in a fax machine could jam up or simply stop working. No doubt millions of people assumed the fax machine was dead from the moment they first attached a Microsoft Word document to an email.

And yet here we are in 2011, and still virtually every office of any size in the world has a fax machine, with new ones still being pumped out by the thousands. FedEx Office stores can even get away with charging 50 cents a page for their use! What happened -- or what didn't? Well, you might say that fax machines survived for the same reasons the paperless office never arrived. Sure, it's easier to send an email with an attachment than it is to print something out and run it through a fax -- if you have the document on your computer. But there are plenty of occasions when all you have is the hard copy. Maybe that hard copy has handwritten notes all over it that someone needs to see. You could always scan it, but let's face it: digital scanners can be even more of a pain than fax machines, since they involve hardware and software, neither of which you work with regularly, interacting.

Or maybe you do have a digital copy of the document, but the file is so big that it gets rejected by the mail server of whoever you're trying to send it to. The truth is that, if file transfer gets tricky, it gets tricky really fast, and most people would rather just stick their documents into a fax machine and be done with it. To accommodate this need, many offices are now investing in "fax servers," which basically take incoming fax calls, convert the encoded image into a digital form rather than printing it onto a sheet of paper, and send it internally via email. This is of course just grafting a new front end on an archaic infrastructure -- something you're going to see more than once in this article.

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