The Fax Gets A Face Lift

The idea is so obvious, you can only wonder why it took so long. When sending, a fax machine converts a printed page into a digital image, just like a scanner does. When receiving, it changes a digital image into a page, like a printer. If you skip the transmission in the middle--an unadvertised option with most faxes--you get a duplicate page, like a copier. Why not combine the functions into a simple package?

Now that's happening. By introducing a combination fax-printer-copier for less than $1,000, Hewlett-Packard Co. may turn what has been a specialized field for more expensive machines from Ricoh, Canon, and Okidata into a mass market. The HP OfficeJet, combining an inkjet printer with a full-featured fax machine, lists for $959 and should be available for around $750 at discount office and computer stores.

SHARP AND CLEAR. The OfficeJet's output, not surprisingly, is identical to that of HP's DeskJet printers. If you're used to curly, quick-to-fade thermal faxes, you will appreciate the crisp, plain-paper printing.

I must confess, I initially found myself disappointed by the OfficeJet. You can't scan an image into your computer with it, nor can you transmit a file directly from your word processor, the way you can with a fax modem and such software as Delrina's WinFax.

I'm an experienced computer user, however, and I can see why HP is aiming the DeskJet at the rapidly growing home-office market, where simplicity is a much more important selling point than powerful features. Steven J. Gomo, general manager of HP's San Diego division, says market research showed that while users were interested in advanced features, such as scanning, the wish list gave a higher priority to ease of use, reliability, and price. Virtually anyone who runs even the smallest office these days knows how to use a fax machine and a printer, but PC-based faxing is still trickier than it ought to be.

Of course, for around $450, you can get an inkjet printer, a fax modem, and software that lets you use your PC as a fax. But you will only be able to send out computer files, not printed materials. Besides, your machine will slow down badly while sending or receiving a fax. Most users will be happier with a separate fax or combo fax/printer than with a fax modem.

More powerful multifunction machines are coming to market to meet the more complex needs of business users, including faster and better printing along with cost and space savings. For example, Okidata's Doc-It line, with list prices from $1,999 to $2,799, is a single-user machine designed to work with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. It offers laser-quality printing, high-resolution scanning and copying, and can send faxes either by scanning printed copies or by taking the output directly from your word processor or other application.

ALL-IN-ONE. At the top of the line are high-speed machines that can plug in to a local-area network and handle printing, faxing, and scanning for a group of users while doubling as conventional copiers. Ricoh Co.'s IFS66, due out early next year, will be the first multipurpose unit to incorporate Microsoft's At Work software. In addition to normal office chores, the IFS66 will exchange data files with other At Work-equipped machines. Today, a manager might fax a draft contract to a vendor and receive a hand-annotated version by return fax. The new technology would allow the actual word-processor file to be sent, edited, and returned without any E-mail link being set up in advance--and with encryption keeping the contents safe from prying eyes along the way.

In a few years, the fax has matured from an exotic communications tool to a workhorse that no business, no matter how small, can afford to be without. In the next leap, the multifunction fax will be both more powerful and easier to use--a tough combination to beat.

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