More and more companies have ceased to consider the fax as just another convenient office gadget. It is also considered to be a convenient and strategic sales tool.
Indeed, more and more marketing services are using faxes to help them promote and distribute their product. The process has become quitesimple and popular, telecommunications experts say.
A customer who wants a copy of a company's product catalog or order forms will call a toll-free number and listen to a voice menu describe the documents stored in the system. The caller will then punch in the document number and the fax number where the information should be sent.
Other fax practices have become old hat for many business across the country, said Emil Florio, a spokesman for Ricoh Corp., a leader in the fax technology field. Companies with branch offices throughout the country commonly program their fax machines to transmit hundreds of documents simultaneously at off-peak hours.
Sales personnel on the road have had their cars fitted with briefcase-sized faxes that transmit over cellular phone lines.
Other fax innovations have only recently surfaced. The Sharp Corp. of Japan recently produced a new desktop fax machine that produces full-color duplicates. The machine has not been marketed in the United States, mainly because its $23,000 price tag is considered prohibitive, but industry reports say the price should slowly come down with increased experimentation and competition.
A popular item in the facsimile industry these days is the plain-paper fax. More and more companies are replacing their old facsimile machines, which must use a chemically treated paper to receive a transmission, to the new models, which are compatible with normal office bond paper.
"We're seeing a lot of movement in this market," said Joseph Cosgrove, Sharp's national marketing manager. "People just hate thermal paper."
The new plain-paper fax machines are more expensive than their thermal counterparts, ranging in cost from $3,500 to $5,000, but Mr. Cosgrove maintains that the costs companies incur in buying the more expensive thermal paper and copying faxes onto regular bond often make the plain-paper fax as economical as the thermal.
"And for those companies that receive a lot of faxes it's, in fact, cheaper," he added.
Mr. Florio says some companies are using their old fax machines to send documents and the new version, which accepts plain paper, to receive faxes, thus preventing a backlog of documents at one machine and cutting back on thermal paper costs.
Another innovation in the fax revolution that is sure to change the way businesses communicate is the marriage of the computer and the fax.
Currently, a user must prepare the document or spreadsheet on a computer, print it out, take it to the fax machine and transmit it to the receiver's fax machine.
If the receiver has to respondto the fax, the receiver has to return to the computer and repeat the process.
But recent technology allows the sender to transmit directly from a personal computer to the receiver's computer or fax machine, thus, in some cases at least, eliminating the need for a fax machine.
Some major long-distance carriers even offer fax services for personal computer users. At MCI, for instance, an annual $35 registration fee provides the PC user with the capability of sending, though not receiving, faxes around the country and the world. Each half-page sent domestically costs 35 cents, with the first half page going for 50 cents. International faxes are more expensive, and pricing depends on where the document is being sent.
Telex services via a PC are also available through most major long-distance carriers, which come in handy for people trying to contact faraway countries with noisy or erratic phone connections. To send a telex to Nairobi, Kenya, for example, costs $3.10 for the first half page and $1.20 for every half page after that.
There are drawbacks, though. The receiver is only receiving the "image" of a computer document, Mr. Cosgrove said, and there can be eye strain if a person has to read too many of these duplications.
In addition, he said, most computers these days aren't able to fit an entire fax transmission on a regular computer screen, so users are continually scrolling down to read the document.
"By the time you've done this a couple of times, it's become so frustrating you don't ever want to do it again," he said.
But this new fax technology is preferred by some office workers because the transmissions are not printed out unless the receiver commands the computer to do so, thereby ensuring confidentiality.
Some businesses, particularly law firms, have programmed their fax/computer system to receive sensitive documents into a confidential mailbox that is accessible only by authorized personnel.
Fax machine costs have dropped considerably in the last five years, with low-end models now priced at under $500. And with this price drop, industry analysts say, a new market has opened for fax manufacturers as more and more small- and home-business owners have come to see the fax as an integral office product.
In 1987, shipments of fax machines in the United States totaled 450,000 units; by the next year, that figure had doubled to 1.1 million. And this year, 1.7 million fax machines are expected to be sold, according to Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif., market research firm.
Its uses have not only affected the business world but the world's political climate, too.
Chinese students protesting the government's suppression of the 1989 democracy movement used fax machines to spread information on the assault in Peking when government-controlled television and newspapers refused to report it.
Michael Enright is a Baltimore free-lance writer.