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Lessons from the afterlife of the fax

Video never killed the radio star, and neither did Napster or Spotify.

New technologies rarely replace the legacy tech completely. In most cases the older technology hangs around as a supplement or evolves into a new use. Even so, it is puzzling that not only is the fax machine still with us, but that its use has continued to grow. Around 17 billion faxes were sent in 2015 from around 43 million fax machines, according to one estimate.

The machines are still being made. As recently as 2018, China shipped 2.28 million fax machines. Last year it made 637,000 units, mostly by the same brands that dominated in its heyday two decades ago, like Canon and Ricoh. The fax may be an old technology – indeed, it predates Alexander Graham Bell's telephone by 30 years – but it remains popular because it is simple, secure and sometimes better suited to a particular industry or company practice.

In healthcare, for example, it is seen as more secure than transmitting through the public Internet. It's also popular because the different standards adopted by health databases makes digital record-sharing impossible. In places like Germany where faxed documents, unlike electronic ones, are legally recognized, 40% of businesses say they often send faxes. The German Bundestag banned the use of the fax just last January.

But the fax fascination runs deepest of all in Japan, despite multiple efforts to shake the habit. One 2011 survey estimated nearly 100% of businesses and 45% of private homes had a fax machine. When Prime Minister Suga took office last year he tasked the Minister for Administrative Reform, Taro Kono, to make another run at it. Kono knows his real enemy is not the technology itself but the supporting cultural practices and ecosystem.


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His initial target was the hanko, or personal seal. Ending the hanko culture would "eliminate the need for printouts and faxes," he declared after taking office, prompting an immediate backlash. As the Wall Street Journal reported: "A group of lawmakers recently submitted a letter – on paper – to senior government leaders to warn that Japan's culture of using personal seals in place of signatures was at risk owing to Kono's 'hasty and excessive move.' "

Beyond hanko is the reality of the Japanese economy: an efficient, globally oriented manufacturing sector and an inefficient service sector made up of several million small businesses. There's also the aging demographics, the high-touch service culture and Japan's unique writing system. Japan's fax culture will likely long outlast Kono.

There's a lesson here for telcos burnishing their digital transformation credentials. Digital technologies can bring vast efficiencies but they also bring sweeping change. Some organizations may not want to change. Or they can't change because their suppliers and customers are happy where they are.

The deeper lesson is to be sure that technology is fit for purpose. It should help businesses perform their functions in ways that better meets their customers' and their own needs. Even if that just means a better fax.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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