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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Secure IP Fax – Now Standard

Last fall, I blogged about a pending standard for securing facsimile communications over IP networks here and I spoke about this progress at the SIPNOC conference. Since that time, the standard, known as RFC 7345 has been approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force. The availability of a standard is very good news. There’s a common perception that fax isn’t used anymore, but there are a number of business to business (B2B) and consumer applications where fax still is common, including real estate, insurance, health care and legal applications. There are also a number of companies which provide fax by selling equipment, fax enabling technology, software or a hosted service.

So why should people or companies care about securing IP fax? Increasingly, most of our real time communications, whether by voice, fax, text or video, are transported over IP networks. Very often, they will travel over the Internet for a portion of their journey. The Internet is ubiquitous, but fundamentally unsecure unless the application or the transport layers provide security. Security can mean many different things, but is often referring to solutions for needs which include privacy, authentication and data integrity. The new RFC 7345 is designed to support these types of requirements by applying a standard known as Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS). One of the key reasons that the Fax over IP RFC uses DTLS is because the T.38 IP fax protocol most typically formats its signals and data using the User Datagram Protocol Transport Layer (UDPTL), unlike most real time media, which use the Real Time Transport protocol (RTP).  DTLS was designed to provide security services with datagram protocols, so it’s a good fit for T.38 IP fax.  The current version of DTLS is 1.2, which is defined in RFC 6347.

Getting a standard approved is really only the beginning. In order to get traction in the marketplace, there needs to be implementations. For example, T.38 was originally approved in 1998 by the International Telecommunications Union, but implementations did not become common until many years later, starting around 2005. In the time since, T.38 has become the most common way to send fax over IP networks and its been adopted by most of the fax eco-system.  On the plus side, a key advocate for the new standard is the Third Generation Partnership Program (3GPP), which is the standards group that drives standardization of services which will run over mobile networks, such as the emerging Long Term Evolution (LTE) network.  The SIP Forum is also continuing work on its SIP Connect interworking agreements and there is potential for including the new standard in a future version of SIPconnect.

I’ll continue to track what’s happening with respect to implementation of the standard.   As I noted in some of my previous posts, the current work on standardizing WebRTC is helping implementors to gain experience in important new standards for security, codecs and Network Address Translation (NAT) traversal. This WebRTC “toolkit” is also available in open source form.  The inclusion of DTLS in RFC 7345 joins the pending RTCWeb standards in providing new applications and use cases for these emerging standards. This will be good news for the user community, as features which were previously available only in proprietary get implemented in variety of products and services.  If you know of any plans in motion or want to learn more, please feel free to comment or get in touch with me.  You can also learn more by checking out my presentation on Securing IP Fax.