Faxing To The Max

New gear can turn your PC into a power tool for messages

Are E-mail, the Internet, and the World Wide Web making the fax machine, that old electro-mechanical workhorse of the Information Age, obsolete?

Hardly. While the PC revolution is certainly spawning powerful new forms of communications, it's also making faxing amazingly easier, more economical, and more effective. It's not just that fax machines are getting large infusions of computer memory and processing power. PCs themselves are getting substantially better at sending and receiving faxes. And any business that sends or receives more than a few faxes a day should check out the latest PC-based fax equipment--what the trade calls enhanced fax. Many of the dozen or so manufacturers in the business are aiming new gear precisely at small businesses (box).

PAPER CUTS. The basic idea is that by equipping a standard PC with add-in hardware and software, it can become a powerful fax server--a fax machine on steroids. Like the fax modems that come with many computers today, but with much greater capacity, the fax server lets you fax documents from a PC without printing them on paper first--a big time-saver.

But fax servers do much more. Fax boards, starting at around $800, are powerful computers within a computer. With their own microprocessors, memory, and high-speed modem chips, they perform all of the nitty-gritty communication chores that make faxing work. The PC's processor, meanwhile, can get on with higher-level tasks, such as preparing and attaching personalized cover letters to a newsletter and getting copies sent to a long list of fax numbers. This way, even an old 386-based PC with a few server boards can send and receive dozens of faxes per hour.

One of the most powerful and popular uses of such setups is "fax on demand," which allows people to dial in and select documents for automatic delivery to their fax machines. Documents can be anything from product brochures to internal sales reports and memos directed to workers in the field. An Atlanta company called Life-Fax runs a fax-on-demand service that most of its clients may never get to see in action: The company stores in its server their living wills that, when the time comes, doctors can have faxed to them anywhere in the world. Life-Fax urges clients to keep its card in their wallet, so its number is always handy.

For Thomas M. Jozwik, president and founder of Wikman Publishing Inc. in St. Louis, fax-on-demand is the basis of his business. His 486-based PC, equipped with a 1-gigabyte disk drive and plug-in cards that guide callers with synthesized-speech instructions, runs three separate services. Menu Fax sends callers menus from any of about 135 area restaurants. Business Solutions Bureau provides descriptions of the services available from local consultants and computer specialists. And Computer Solutions Bureau distributes technical data about hardware and software products.

Callers pay nothing, but Jozwik collects a per-inquiry fee of $2 from each outfit that distributes information via his server. First-time callers register for a personal entry code by providing their name and other information, which allows Jozwik to send his clients what he calls "daily love reports"--fresh sales leads, essentially. With one inbound and two outbound phone lines, his fax server handles about 600 calls a day.

At the SmithKline Employees Federal Credit Union in Philadelphia, a fax server acts as an "electronic storeroom," cutting down on printing costs. The credit union's customers can dial in around the clock to request any of 23 documents and forms, including those needed to apply for loans or open new accounts. Tom J. Swierzy, president and CEO, says he bought the system--a $4,000, self-contained QuadraFax server from Brooktrout Technology Inc.--over the telephone, and "we installed it ourselves." Staffers load new documents into the unit either by faxing them to it over a phone line or by sending a word-processing file from a PC. Usage has been a little slower than he expected, however: "It's the kind of thing where you have to change people's thinking."

NIGHT SHIFT. Fax servers are getting smarter every day. A handy feature that has become standard: the ability to collect faxes from PCs all across a network and send them at night, when phone rates are lowest. Some units can be programmed for so-called least-cost routing, in which the server chooses from a menu of different telephone services depending on where the fax is going. Servers can create virtual fax mailboxes for each person on a network, storing their faxes until they're ready to view them--either on-screen or--most often, because it makes reading easier--printed on paper. There's even a product, from Ibex, that lets people retrieve documents from a Web server using a fax modem. The system automatically handles the translation from the Web's peculiar HTML format.

The payoffs from computer faxing can be substantial. Preparing and faxing a letter, say, directly from your PC can take as little as a 10th of the time needed to manually print and fax it. So even with a volume of only 10 faxes a day, a $3,000 server setup can pay for itself in months. The savings compared to express mail delivery can be substantial, too.

So don't give up on faxing just because the Internet's getting all the press. Richard D. Shockey, president of fax-software maker Nuntius Corp., reckons that 95% of all adult workers in the U.S. have easy access to a fax machine--compared to only a few million who are quickly reachable through E-mail via the Internet. Besides, a paper document, even if it has just stuttered forth from an old fax machine, has a compelling physical presence that it will take a long time for E-mail to match.

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