Faxed: A Book Review – Ruminations

In my last post, I talked about the book written by historian and professor Jonathan Coopersmith entitled Faxed – The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.  I left off as fax entered the late Eighties and became wildly popular.  As Coopersmith recounts, this confounded the experts, who were expecting electronic messaging, videotext or a variety of other technologies to supersede fax.

In my own work life, I’d worked for a fax company for a decade by then, but didn’t get close to the technology until I joined Product Line Management and wrote the business case for a fax modem product.  Like many companies, Fujitsu sold fax machines, but we also started developing computer-based products.  Around 1989, we released the dexNet 200 fax modem and accompanying software called PC 210 which ran on IBM compatible computers.  A year later, my boss sent me to the TR-29 fax standards committee and I discovered that this group was writing standards that would have a big impact on most companies in the wild west activity known as computer fax.  I also joined an upstart industry group, which became the International Computer Fax Association (ICFA) and started reporting to them on the standards being developed at TR-29.  Fax was hot, but Fujitsu was focused on its mainframe computer business and shut down the US-based business called Fujitsu Imaging Systems of America (FISA) that employed me.  After a month of soul searching, I decided to start a consulting business called Human Communications which advised clients on fax and related technologies.  The ICFA was one of my first clients and I continued to attend TR-29 and gradually built up a client list among fax machine and computer fax companies.

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By late 1993, the business was going well and that’s when I originally met Jonathan Coopersmith. In his book, he talks about this period as being the heyday of fax. Fax did extremely well in the US, as pizza parlors installed fax machines and offices of every size had one. But it became even more popular in Japan. The Japanese fax manufacturers competed fiercely, but also cooperated to ensure interworking between their machines.  I started attending the meetings of ITU-T Study Group 8 in starting around this time and we were building the new extensions to the very popular Group 3 fax standard.  There was a newer digital standard called Group IV, but Group 3 took on its best attributes and basically shut Group IV out of the market.

In the mid-Nineties, the Internet and the World Wide Web exploded and began a massive transformation in the way the world communicated.  In the fax community, it was obvious to many of us that the Internet would have a huge impact, so we started a very aggressive effort to write Fax over IP standards.  Dave Crocker, a co-author of the standard for electronic mail in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), came to TR-29 and asked for volunteers to begin the work of Internet Fax in the IETF.  A similar effort began in the ITU.  The work proceeded from ground zero to completed standards by 1998, which was unusually fast for standards groups.

I left the fax consulting business in late 1999 and joined the Voice over IP industry.  By then, there were already signs that fax would lose its dominance. The World Wide Web totally took over the information access role that had been played by Fax on Demand.  The chip companies stopped focusing on fax and by the time a new version of the T.38 standard was written in 2004 to accommodate the faster V.34 modem speeds for fax over IP, the VoIP chips didn’t support it.

In Japan, as Coopersmith explains, fax had been even more dominant than in the US.  The visual aspects of Japanese characters such as kanji meant that computer keyboards were much slower to develop in Japan than in the US market.  By the time I met Jonathan again in 2004, fax had begun its next move and had become more of a niche business both in the US and in Japan.  It still sells well in some market segments and there has been a bit of a renaissance as the T.38 fax standard has kicked in to accompany Voice over IP, but the arc of technological history is now in the long tail phase for fax.

Fax is a classic example of a technology that had many false starts — the first half of the book shows just how many there were — but eventually caught fire as all of the pieces came together for massive success. This book offers some good context on all of this and has many useful lessons learned for technologists. Great technology is never enough by itself, but when the right combination of market needs and technology come together, amazing things can happen. Faxed, the book, tells that story for fax.



Faxed: A Book Review – Part 1

In 1993, I visited the city of San Antonio to participate in a speaking engagement on fax at a conference on electronic commerce.  While there, I had dinner with a professor from the University of Texas A & M named Jonathan Coopersmith.  We had an engaging conversation about facsimile technology and he told me that he was writing a history on the subject.  The fax business was in full ferment at the time and I’d been busy during the past several years working on the TR-29 fax committee, which prepared US fax standards and also submitted contributions to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the group which defined standards for fax and other telecom technologies.

Fast forward about ten years.  Jonathan visited Needham, Massachusetts to interview the executives of Brooktrout Technology and discovered that I also worked at the company. He invited me to share lunch with him and we talked about how much fax had changed in the prior ten years, going from the world’s hottest communications technology to one of many ways of communicating in a world now dominated by Internet based tech.  He also said that yes, he was still working on the book, but had taken out time to raise his family and he’d been sidetracked on that long running project.  We continued to exchange messages over the next several years, notably when he visited Japan to interview sources over there in person.  He sent me a draft of a chapter on computer fax and fax during the Nineties around 2010 or so and I offered some feedback.

In 2015, Jonathan got in touch.  Great news.  The book was done and published.  The result is called Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.  He sent me a copy and I recently sat down and read it over the period of a few weeks. Jonathan’s area of expertise is as an historian specializing in the history of technology.  He discovered fax as a user, finding the fax machine was a technology that even his mother could use effectively.  He’d also discovered that the books on fax were not written from an historical perspective, so he decided to write one.

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Fax has a fascinating history.  It was invented in 1843 by Alexander Bain, a Scottish physicist, during the era when the telegraph was the king of communications technology.  Bain was one of several notable figures in the early days of fax; as Coopersmith notes, the idea attracted a diverse group of inventors who worked not only on fax, but also on improvements to the telegraph.  I’d been aware of Bain, but Coopersmith digs in and finds many others who advanced fax in one way or another during its first seventy years.  The technology was promising, but difficult, involving aspects of mechanics, optics and electronic synchronization which tended to exceed the state of the art at the time.  The early markets for fax sprung up around World War I and its aftermath, as newspapers began to supplement written words with photographs transferred via fax and competitive technologies.

As Coopersmith recounts, fax moved forward in fits and starts and consumed a great deal of financial capital in the process, but did not actually result in a successful commercial market until the Sixties, when new technologies such as the photocopier from Xerox made it easier for faxed documents to be copied and exchanged within businesses and other organizations.  Even in this period, there was a lack of standards and the main markets were the US and Japan.  Xerox appeared to have all of the pieces to dominate the market, but invested elsewhere and other startups began to compete for the burgeoning market of fax machines targeted to offices.

Two developments changed the landscape in a dramatic way.  First, the Carterphone decision forced AT&T to allow 3rd party devices to connect to the phone network and opened the way to telecom technology to advance outside of the monopolistic Bell system.  Coopersmith notes that NTT was forced to open its network in Japan just a few years later, which also encouraged a number of companies in Japan to jump into fax.  The second development was the hard set of compromises that resulted in the first well accepted fax standard, Group 3, which was agreed within the International Consultative Committee on  Telegraphy and Telephony (aka CCITT) in 1980.  With the advent of Group 3, the factories in Japan were able to standardize mass production of fax machines and Japan became the supplier of fax machines for the world.

In the late Eighties, the sub-$1000 fax machine debuted and the fax explosion was in full motion.  Around this time, a court in New York State accepted that fax documents could be used in legal proceedings and fax gained a stature which pushed other technologies like Telex aside.

During this period, I worked for Fujitsu Imaging Systems of America (FISA) and was a product line manager for a new technology called computer fax modems.  FISA had bought one of the early fax success stories from the Sixties, Graphic Sciences, from Burroughs Corporation in 1986.  This is where my story begins to intertwine with the fax history which Coopersmith recounts.  I’ll continue this review in my next post.