CFOG's PIP, December 1988, Volume 7 No. 6, Whole No. 68, page 96

FAX: Shades of Things to Come

by Willis Cook

[This article appeared in the December 1988 issue of Mor-Atlanta News, the newsletter of the Morrow Atlanta Users Group. Willis Cook is the president of Mor-Atlanta. A rebuttal follows. -- bhc]

It is not commonly known, but the fax machine was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1842, several years before the telephone. Bell, however, realized the limitations of the device and discarded it. Gertrude Sigafoos, his cleaning lady, found the design drawings in Bell's trash can and kept them Alfred, her great, great, great grandson, eventually resurrected the idea in 1982 and went bankrupt trying to market it.

Don't get me wrong: I don't have neophobia (a fear of new thing). In fact, I am as enamored of new and exciting gizmos as the next guy. I love to buy tools, automobile accessories, electronic whizbang doodads -- my house is cluttered with a collection of useless gimcracks that at one time seemed indispensable. As Garfield the cat says: "It's amazing what people would rather have than money."

Human nature never changes; people have always wanted to buy things they didn't need, but now the scale of things has changed. Probably because of the invention of the microprocessor a host of new electronic devices is now being offered for sale never before available. No harm in that, except that these things are so cheap that not only does every individual have to have one of each, but companies have to have them by the ton. Can you go into a company board room or a client presentation room anywhere in th U.S. and not see a top-notch TV/VCR setup? No self-respecting department head of any U.S. company would admit that he had less than 1.5 MS-DOS computers per employee. But we have now reached the nadir of electronic tomfoolery: the facsimile machine.

How on earth can a computer enthusiast, one who obviously has a warped personality, object to fax machines? Aren't the new? Don't they cost a lot? Can't you connect them to telephone lines? God! What more could one ask? Yes, yes that's all true. Faxes have all these advantages. They only have two drawbacks: they are slower than human beings in transferring information from one place to another and their resolution is poorer than that of human beings.

Let's define our terms here. I am a consulting engineer and I frequently call people up to ask them for an item of data (so I can massage it and sell it back to them). Here are two typical scenarios -- before and after fax:

Before Fax:

I call John Smith on the phone: "John, can you give me the bus impedances of the XYZ Co-op's substations?" John will either say yes and give me the numbers immediately or he will have to look them up and call me back. In either event, I have nothing more to do to get my data; the oral request was all that was necessary.

After Fax:

I call John Smith on the phone: "John, can you give me the bus impedances of the XYZ Co-op's substations?" John: "Sure, Willis; why don't you fax me your list and I will fill in the data and fax it back to you?" Rats! Now I have to type up a list of substations. (You can't read hand-written faxes and besides, we would no more send a hand-written fax than we would send a hand-written letter.) So right away I have created more work for myself, but it is not over yet: I have to have a fax cover sheet telling the recipient how many pages he should expect in this transmission. Now explain to me why, if fax is so good, I have to announce ahead of time how many sheets are being sent? Won't the other guy know by how many come out of his machine, or is there some danger of several sheets getting lost in the electronic ether of the telephone network? The secretary has to type the cover sheet since it is on company letterhead stationary. [I'm glad to know that the secretary doesn't have to hit company letterhead moving! Proof again, that a spelling checker is no substitute for proofreading. -- bhc]

Then I have to carry the list and cover sheet to the fax machine, which is on another floor of our building. After sending the thing (a matter of three minutes per page), I get to wait until the guy on the other end finds the data I need, goes through the same process of preparing his material for transmittal, actually sees it and someone finally decides to let me know something has come in. It should be pretty obvious that this takes longer than a simple phone conversation.

Then there is the matter of fax legibility. If a company tried to sell a dot matrix printer with the resolution of a fax machine, they would go out of business immediately. I think the resolution is something like six dots per inch vertically, although it is better than that horizontally. In practical terms, it means that anything smaller than typewriter type is virtually unreadable. Manufacturer's catalog sheets are frequently in smaller type, as are most books and magazines. One of the first faxes I received (very soon after an equipment vendor bought a fax machine), was of a wiring diagram. Amazing. Not a single wiring terminal number was readable. We had to call the vendor up and ask him to read the terminal numbers to us over the phone so we could write them on our fax copy.

It's band enough that fax machines are so worthless, but adding insult to injury is the hoard of people who wax enthusiastic over them. (I suspect it is the same group of folks who think "Wheel of Fortune" is educational.) Whenever I mouth off about the dumb machines, someone in hearing distance invariably chirps up: "Aren't they just WONDERFUL?" I'm old enough to realize that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but do we have to be so damn happy about it?

Last week I thought I finally had a need for a fax. We had just held a bid opening and a controversy arose over the validity of the proposal offered by the lowest bidder. What we needed was a letter from the contractor's home office clarifying the situation. Thought I: "Come on now, give the thing another chance. It is just what you need." I called and asked the contractor to fax me a letter stating his position. He agreed. I waited, and waited. Finally I went downstairs to see if anything had arrived. A technician noticed me staring at the inert machine and said, "Oh, are you expecting something? I'll plug it back in for you." He had disconnected it so he could play with his modem. The score is now Frustration -- 10, Fax -- 0.

I'll have to admit, though, fax is the logical progression of the decline of the human race. I had thought that icons were as low as we could go; I was mistaken. My theory is that the "I <heart> NY" bumper stickers were the inspiration for the Mackintosh [sic] computer. Young Alfred Sigafoos was no doubt motivated by the "---- Happens" bumper sticker.