Business Disruption in Document Communications – What Happened?

In the late 1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web created massive technical disruption for the worlds of document communications and messaging. Now, nearly twenty years later, business communications looks much different than it did going into the Millennium and once major businesses such as the marketing of enterprise fax machines are deep into their long tail phase. In my last post, I noted several trends in both fax and email as the related standards communities pushed to transform these technologies for the new IP world. Let’s look at what happened.

One major driver of the success of fax in the Nineties was the classic network effect as postulated by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe. In essence, Metcalfe had stated that a network became much more compelling as the number of connected devices increased.  In the Nineties, the fax machine vendors and computer fax companies were often on opposing sides in technical battles, but all of these companies benefited from Metcalfe’s network effect as it applied to the overall fax network. But as we crossed into the 21st century, fax machines designed to run on the circuit-switched phone network (aka the Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN) had much less utility in an increasingly IP network connected world. As a result, physical fax machines began to disappear from larger enterprise offices and in smaller offices, they were often replaced by less expensive multi-function peripherals (MFPs), which were basically printers that also included fax and scanning features. This meant that the number of Group 3 fax devices in total at first plateaued and then began a decline. In essence, Metcalfe’s network effect played out in reverse. The fax machines and MFPs of the Nineties did not evolve to use the new IP fax standards, so as document communications moved to IP, these physical fax or MFP devices still only sent faxes over the PSTN and were less connected as IP communications became more prevalent.

If we consider the trends in computer-based fax, they played out differently. Companies like Brooktrout sold fax boards to independent software developers and the boards were incorporated in local area network solutions. These solutions also typically included tight integration with email.  By 2004, Fax over IP enabling technology started to be commercialized, using the ITU-T T.38 IP fax standards. T.38 had some technical issues, but it could use the same call control protocols — SIP, H.323 and H.248 — that were being adopted by the new Voice over IP networks, so T.38 became a popular choice for conveying fax over these VoIP networks. By contrast, the T.37 approach of Internet Fax over Email did not get much adoption, most likely because it didn’t mesh very well with Voice over IP.  The computer-based fax solutions that ran on Local Area Networks continued to have healthy growth in the first decade of the 2000s in large part due to the continued validity of fax as a legal document, perceived security compared to use of email over the Internet, a slow rampup in the use of digital signatures on other electronic documents and regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) which meshed well with receiving fax documents in electronic form (rather than on a paper tray).

During the same period, email use continued to grow, but rising issues such as lack of security and massive amounts of spam made the use of email outside of corporate subject to a number of hassles. As noted above, electronic signatures started to become available as a legal alternative to fax signatures, but didn’t gain widespread use until the past few years. As a result, enterprises tended to standardize on a particular commercial email package and communicate whenever possible over secured private IP networks and by making use of security tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Now, in 2018, the messaging world is highly fragmented. Large enterprises have tended to choose unified communications eco-systems from large players like Microsoft, Cisco and Avaya, but even these solutions are rapidly evolving as the momentum is shifting toward pushing enterprise communications into the Cloud.  Hence, Microsoft is shifting its emphasis from Lync to Skype for Business and now onto Teams and other vendors such as Cisco are doing much the same.  Upstarts such as Slack have started by offering cloud-based team communications and have forced reactions from the traditional Unified Communications players.  As messaging has evolved, voice is now becoming less important and fax is now more of a niche play.  One thing I don’t see too much of is the use of business communications that can effectively cross the boundaries between organizations. In theory, Cloud-based communications could get us there, but the vision of the late Nineties of being able to communicate documents and other types of media effectively across the entire Internet has been hobbled by security, privacy and spam issues. We’ll have to see if the Cloud and better cross-network security mechanisms could form the foundation for approaches that will be superior to today’s highly balkanized communications landscape.

If you or your company have participated in the massive changes to the communications eco-system since the 1990s, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services to better address the rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

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A Tale of Business Disruption in Document Communications

In the middle of the 1990s, the Internet and its associated IP protocols were like a huge wave that was off the shore of the business world, but poised to come in and cause massive disruption. At that time, I ran a consulting business for telecom clients (Human Communications) and was active on several fronts to be proactive on the topic.  In the TR-29 fax standards committee, we started work on how fax communications could take place over the Internet. A small group began work on an initiative called Group 5 Messaging, whose goal was to take the best ideas of fax, email and telex and spin up the next generation of business communications. In late 1996, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) held an informal Birds of a Feather (BOF) on Internet Fax.  In meetings of Study Group 8 of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), discussions began on how to extend fax protocols to work over the Internet or on private IP networks.

On the business side, fax was very hot and even very small businesses such as pizza parlors had purchased fax machines. Corporations had been adopting fax over Local Area Networks, and companies like Rightfax, Omtool, Optus and Biscom had  very healthy businesses selling into this space. Brooktrout Technology had introduced multi-channel fax boards and drivers for Windows NT, and had built up market momentum that enabled the company to go public. But all of this fax technology was based on sending faxes over circuit-switched networks. What would be the impact of the Internet and its technology on fax and business communications?

By 1999, the business communications landscape had changed dramatically. On the standards front, the IETF had created several standards for providing a fax services via email and the ITU had referenced these standards in the T.37 standard. The ITU had also independently created a new T.38 standard which essentially extended the T.30 Group 3 fax protocol into the IP packet world. The Group 5 initiative had lost momentum, as the fax and other communications players lined up to support the new IP-based standards from the IETF and ITU which appeared to solve the problem of how to send faxes over IP.  Related standards work continued and I was active in making sure that the new T.38 fax protocol was supported under both the current H.323 call control and under the new SIP and Megaco (later H.248) protocols.

On the business side, fax was still doing well, but now had new competition. The advent of the World Wide Web had totally wiped out the Fax on Demand business that had done well in the early Nineties. Various pundits were saying that email was the future of business communications and that new portable document formats like the PDF from Adobe would be used in place of fax.  Curiously, the email experts who participated in the IETF Internet Fax work weren’t so sure. Fax had business quality of service elements which were hard to duplicate in email — notably instant confirmation of delivery at the end of a session, negotiations between the endpoints on what document formats were acceptable and the legal status of fax, where fax messages over the circuit network were accepted as legal documents for business purposes.  The IETF work group tried to upgrade email protocols to address the technical elements, but the work was hard and the path to adoption slow.

I also shifted my career and suspended my consulting business to join Brooktrout Technology and help them participate in the new Voice over IP business. But just before I left my business, I advised my fax clients and newsletter subscribers to get diversified and not put all of their eggs in the fax communications basket.  I saw both challenges and opportunities ahead. There had been a large number of new startups that had attempted to ride IP fax to success in the late Nineties, but most of them crashed and burned within a couple of years. E-Fax had introduced “free” IP fax mailboxes and that approach was quickly emulated by competitors, but the business model for “free” wasn’t obvious.  I’d helped form a new industry association called the Internet Fax and Business Communications Association in early 1999, but we had difficulty getting fax and other communications industry vendors to sign on. The times were turbulent and the way forward was less than obvious.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how the trends toward IP Fax and its communications competitors played out and which related business communications issues still need to be addressed.

If your organization has participated in the evolution of fax or other business communications during this evolution from the circuit-switched phone network to IP, please feel free to comment. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.