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.

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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.

IMG_1010 - Faxed - cropped

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.