The fax machine has revolutionized the way we do business, but if you don't have a fax machine at home -- or you share one with too many others at the office -- you might as well be cut off from the simplest and easiest method of getting a document from Point A to Point B.
That's why I was intrigued by a couple of new Internet services that offer free telephone numbers that will deliver faxes directly to your regular e-mail account. They're part of a larger movement to centralize all your messaging -- including e-mail, faxes and voice mail -- on the Internet, but unlike some of the schemes, these exist here and now. They can also save you a lot of time, paper and money.
One of the services, eFax.com, is a longtime player in the fax business. Under its former name, JetFax Inc., it has sold heavy-duty, commercial fax machines to businesses for a decade. It also developed the fax other manufacturers put into those popular multifunction gadgets that incorporate faxing, printing and scanning in one device. The other provider, CallWave, is an Internet start-up that hopes to cash in on the convergence of telephone, fax and data services..
At the outset, I should say that if you have a computer, there's a good chance it already contains a modem that can send and receive faxes. But the chances are also good that you'll have trouble getting it to work -- and even if you can, it's doubtful you'll want to dedicate a phone line to faxing.
To eliminate these hassles, both eFax and CallWave assign a phone number that your correspondents can use to send you a fax. The main problem with this arrangement is that most of your correspondents will be making a toll call. CallWave's phone bank is in California, while eFax's is in New Hampshire.
If most of the faxes you get are from out of town, this won't be an issue, since virtually all long-distance calls today are billed at a flat per-minute rate. But if your correspondents are local, they may object to paying for a long-distance call -- particularly on a repeated basis.
Once they receive a fax, both services convert it to a compressed graphic format and deliver it to your regular e-mail account as an attachment to a standard message.
When you check your mailbox, you can view the fax on your screen and decide whether to print it or delete it without committing it to paper. This feature alone could save a couple of trees a year in my office. You can also save a fax on your hard disk for future reference -- the compressed fax format doesn't take up much space.
Both providers also offer enhanced services that allow you to send faxes via e-mail, although they differ in their scope and pricing.
CallWave doesn't charge for its fax-sending service but but does require you to fill out a form that includes personal information -- such as income -- that it can use to target advertisements that appear as text in the message bearing the fax. That's how it expects to make money on the deal. If you don't like parting with this information, you should look elsewhere.
eFax offers a much wider variety of enhanced receiving and sending options -- including use of an 800 number for incoming faxes -- but it charges you directly on a scale that starts at $2.95 a month and rises quickly if you're a heavy fax user.
I tried both free inbound faxing services and found that they operated almost flawlessly.
eFax may be easier for some users to get running with because the company provides its fax viewer, which it delivers by e-mail when you set up your account. Once you've installed the viewer, which takes about 15 seconds, you can click your mouse on any fax that arrives by e-mail and see it instantly on your screen. You can zoom in and out, rotate it, print it or save it. The viewer sports a banner advertisement -- one of the ways eFax expects to make money -- but it isn't obtrusive. There are viewers for virtually all versions of Microsoft Windows, but if you use a Mac, you'll have to follow directions for downloading Graphic Converter, a third-party shareware viewing program from Lemke Software.
CallWave, on the other hand, relies on Microsoft Imaging for fax viewing and printing. This program, developed by Kodak, is usually installed as part of Windows -- particularly on newer computers. If you click on the fax attachment icon at the bottom of your e-mail and the fax shows up on your screen, you have Microsoft Imaging or some other type of fax software that can handle fax graphics. If you don't have a fax viewer installed, FaxWave offers instructions for downloading Microsoft Imaging from Kodak's Web site.
As with eFax, Mac owners will have to use Lemke's graphics viewer.
I thought eFax's proprietary software provided a crisper image on the screen, but Microsoft Imaging -- a full-fledged graphics-editing program -- offers more control over printing options and the opportunity to annotate a fax or save it in a standard graphics format.
Both did a fine job of displaying and printing documents. If you receive occasional faxes at home -- or don't want to get involved in the office fax logjam -- they're excellent solutions.
You can sign up for eFax at www.efax.com or CallWave at www.callwave.com.
Send e-mail to mike.himowitz @baltsun.com.