The Fax of Life

Not long ago, a portable device - the wristwatch - was given the heave-ho in this space.

Not long ago, a portable device — the wristwatch — was given the heave-ho in this space.

This month, a wired device got shown the door: the facsimile machine.

The scene this time: unpacking, as the hyphenated family moved into its new abode in a Connecticut exurb of New York City.

When it came time to set up the home office, the spatial and operational effects of the continuing digitization of our lives became clear. Going in, I already had planned that my stereo would move upstairs to a "bonus" room, where my sons, wife or I could either entertain ourselves or exercise to a beat. There went two large Bose acoustical speakers, a Pioneer CD changer and a Sony multimedia receiver. Consigned to the junk heap was a tape deck. Cant remember the last time a cassette got played in our house.

Replacing all that equipment will be my desktop computer. The tiny Harman Kardon speakers can rock just as well as the behemoth Bose speakers. But give them credit: Theyre 20 years old and still impressive. And my musical needs are totally satisfied by a single well-chosen CD at a time, or turning to a Net radio station for continuous-play music. When is playable on the Macintosh, contentment will be complete.

The same distillation doomed the fax machine. When I started to unwrap that baby — a $200 Brother Industries machine that has served me well for six or seven years — my mind balked. Why take up the space? Why worry about buying fax paper?

If you cant send it by e-mail, whats the point anymore? With e-mail, you get a hard copy — only when you want one. As things have evolved, the only real use the machine gets is from people trying to sell me something, whether its an idea (read: behind-the-times public relations company sending out a release), a product (no, I dont need a used router); or a service (nope, dont need the chimney cleaned today).

The normal practice: Check to see if something really important managed to sneak its way into the stack, and then toss. And toss. And toss. Basically, youre wasting time and money on other peoples behalf. Its much easier to scroll through an e-mail list of spam than to hand-sift through it.

So the fax machine is heading to the basement. Theres no real point in throwing it out anyway. Who knows? I might need it in an emergency, when someone absolutely needs a document with my signature on it. But thats even kind of ludicrous. If my signature is so important, Id rather send the document by — who remembers this service? — the U.S. Postal Service. Yeah, it might take a day or two, but you get an original. Not a facsimile.

Thats the only really regular use the fax machine gets these days. Other than to make an occasional copy or two. And there are plenty of ways to make an occasional copy — like trooping up to my sons room to use his computer printer, which does a better job anyway.

Oh, theres a certain amount of nostalgia here. As business equipment stories go, this is one of my favorites. The facsimile machine was invented in 1842, as a process involving the main mode of wired communication of the day — the telegraph. But it wasnt until the late 1980s that sales really began to boom, as microchip technology drove the prices of machines down and companies found a way to save time and money on shipping routine documents. Faxing documents back and forth 14 or 15 years ago was electronic mail to a lot of people.

And a lot of people are still fans. More than 6 million machines will be sold this year, according to one Gartner Group Dataquest forecast. Thats about eight times what sales were in 1988, when the machines were in their glory years.

Oh, sure. Ive signed up for a free fax number on the Net, just in case I really need to receive a "fax" in the future. Itll come as an e-mail attachment. But I dont intend to give out a fax number any more. And the machine? Itll stay in a box. Just like my Dads Royal typewriter.

The fax machine works just fine. I love it. But theres no practical use for it anymore.