In "FAXstf Pro Echoes Sad State of Fax Software" in TidBITS-476, Jeff Hecht dealt primarily with fax software which is enabled with a fax modem. Here I examine a potentially better method of faxing: using the Internet as the transport medium rather than the telephone network. For fees ranging from free to a modest monthly cost, faxing via the Internet can result in lower overall costs, fewer headaches, and a greater degree of usability.
The Promise of Internet Faxing -- Imagine that you're on the road in Europe with your laptop, thousands of miles from home in the U.S.. At your hotel, you walk past a line of weary businessmen waiting to use the hotel fax machine. In your room, you log into your email account and recognize a few messages as faxes that have been sent to your home and business fax numbers. The sender knows only your regular fax numbers, which route the faxes to your fax service company, which in turn delivers them via email.
Using a custom fax viewer or a general graphics program like GraphicConverter, you can open a multi-page fax file. You can enlarge it, rotate it, print it, or annotate it with graphic editing tools. You could also forward it to another fax number or potentially run the fax image through an optical character recognition (OCR) program to convert the graphic into editable text.
Then you decide to send a new text-only message to a group of correspondents, some with email addresses and one with just a fax number. After creating a new email message, you enter that person's fax number into the appropriate email header beside the other email addresses (appending the domain of your fax service company, such as <email@example.com>). With no extra work, the fax recipient receives the same information as everyone else.
Soon after your message goes out, an email message comes back confirming that the fax was delivered successfully. If there was a delivery failure, the confirmation would note the reason, whether it was due to a busy signal, a human answering at the fax number, or something else.
As for cost, the fact that your fax correspondent is back in the U.S. is irrelevant, because the charges are essentially flat-rated (at $.10 per page) for calls throughout the U.S. If your correspondent lives elsewhere, the fact that the Internet is being used to cover some of the distance will save you a bundle on toll-charges.
Meanwhile, the folks back at the office are also using the same fax account simultaneously. One person is reading a fax that was sent using a leased fax number in a faraway city where many of your customers are located (reducing the faxing costs to those of a local correspondent). Perhaps your office has a fax administrator who determines the actual addressee of the inbound faxes to the shared fax number. If so, he can forward the message, as email, directly to the appropriate people.
Another person is sending a limited customer mailing with a mixture of fax numbers and email addresses in the BCC header of his email message. A third has composed a fax message with her word processor's fax stationery, which she has customized with a scanned copy of her physical signature. The body of her message contains a mixture of text and graphics, and she is "printing" it to a fax driver, converting the document into a graphic file which will be transported as an email attachment and delivered as a fax. The print driver has a built-in address book and it is integrated with the user's email client, so sending a fax from any desktop program is a snap.
The promise of Internet faxing is available today and is constantly improving. The experience can be rewarding if you choose your fax service company and fax software (for reading, editing and sending faxes) carefully. That's especially true for those of us who have had bad experiences using modem-enabled fax systems.
The Reality of Internet Faxing -- Internet faxing doesn't require a fax modem, fax software, or even a telephone line if you can connect to the Internet via a local area network. Depending on your faxing needs and how much you want to spend, you can take advantage of all or parts of the situation described above. Setting up a reliable Internet faxing system is a matter of choosing a provider for inbound and outbound faxes, determining the best software for the job, and understanding the current limitations of Internet faxing.
For receiving inbound faxes, you have two basic decisions: what your fax number will be, and which interface will be most convenient. To minimize long distance charges for senders, you may want a fax service that can assign you a fax number located in a specific area code or country. In some cases, that places it in your local telephone exchange, but it could also be in your customer's city or a toll-free number.
All fax services offer numbers in the area code of their main office. Some of these are free, such as those offered by Jfax and eFax (with the caveat that you might have to endure a cover sheet with an eFax logo and advertising). Other inbound fax services that offer no choice of fax number charge $5 to $10 per month.
Jfax and Interpage allow you to choose where your fax number is located. The choices are not unlimited, but you can reserve a number in most major U.S. cities and an assortment of cities worldwide. Inbound fax services with this type of limited choice costs from $12.50 per month (Jfax) to $16.95 or more per month (Interpage).
For toll-free inbound faxing, the best deal comes from eFax, which recently announced availability of toll-free numbers for $29.95 per year and 10 cents per page - a great deal if your volume is moderate.
Be sure to look into a service's quality and reliability. I've used Jfax for many months and have never had a non-delivered fax or any fax that was not properly attached to its email message. eFax is a newer service that might improve with experience; however, I've had problems decoding some of the faxes it has delivered to me as email attachments.
If you intend to receive faxes as email attachments, your email account must be able to handle them. A 25 page fax could be 1 MB in size (depending on the density of the graphics). If you sometimes receive large faxes, make sure your email account quota is large enough, especially if you don't check email frequently.
For most situations, receiving faxes as TIFF-F attachments via email works best. However, accessing inbound faxes with a Web browser has certain advantages, such as the capability to check your faxes from someone else's computer, where you can read and delete them, or forward them to another fax machine (perhaps to your free Jfax or eFax account). The main fax services with Web interfaces, Interpage and HT-NET, sport a number of features, such as being able to store faxes locally in a choice of formats. Interpage lets you forward faxes to your email account as GIF attachments, which many email clients can display inline. Unfortunately, GIF files can't handle multiple pages, so a 25 page fax results in 25 email messages.
Reading Received Faxes -- Email-based services generally use the TIFF-F format, which is nicely suited to faxing due to its multi-page capability. Unfortunately, common Mac graphics programs like Photoshop, GIFConverter, and JPEGView don't yet support TIFF-F. No Mac email program supports inline TIFF-F graphics either. Among popular Mac programs, Microsoft Word 98 probably comes the closest, supporting TIFF-F for single-page faxes only. When QuickTime becomes more savvy about TIFF-F, applications that rely on QuickTime for graphics (like SimpleText) may become suitable fax viewers. The current QuickTime 4 preview offers only limited support for TIFF-F.
In the meantime, Mac users have three choices for viewing TIFF-F faxes. A TIFF-F fax viewer is available from Jfax (if you subscribe to the Jfax service). It works best on its own fax files (identified with a .jfx suffix) but it will open any TIFF-F file, including fax files from eFax. The $15 shareware program GraphicConverter opens all TIFF-F files regardless of suffix. Finally, we have the just-released $15 shareware program TIFF-Sight by Blue Globe Software.
The Jfax viewer is clearly ported from Windows but works reasonably well. It can open multi-page faxes, zoom in or out, rotate images, and send faxes to the printer. The Jfax viewer does not, however, have any tools to annotate a fax document that you want to resend as a new fax. To build a new fax document from an existing Jfax document, you copy and paste sections from the fax into an application that supports inline TIFF graphics (like Word or a graphics application), add your notes, and print it to the Jfax print driver. The process is easy, though not elegant.
GraphicConverter's main advantage is its capability to annotate faxes directly. With patience, you can use GraphicConverter's drawing tools to annotate a fax on-screen the way you would mark up a paper fax. However, rotating a fax page 90 degrees with GraphicConverter results in the page being cropped and distorted.
TIFF-Sight has no capability for annotating or for copying a section of a fax into another program. The quality of its display is also not quite crisp enough for easy viewing, though this may be because TIFF-Sight anti-aliases the fax image in an effort to make it more readable.
Handling incoming faxes with a Web browser - as you would with Interpage or HT-NET - is a one-page-at-a-time experience and provides few of the conveniences of zooming, rotating, etc. Annotating a Web-based fax for resending requires you to download the fax, open and edit it with a another program, then upload it. Handling a fax that has arrived by email is easier.
The Jfax viewer is the best option, especially if you are receiving faxes through the Jfax service. If you are not receiving faxes via Jfax or can't procure a copy of the Jfax viewer, then try GraphicConverter or TIFF-Sight, or wait for Apple to make QuickTime compatible with TIFF-F.
Selecting an Outbound Fax Service -- The standard method of sending a fax via the Internet is to address an email message with a fax number at the domain of a fax service company in the same way you would dial a phone, as in <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Many services support this method, including Jfax, Faxaway, Interpage, NetMoves, TPC.INT and HT-NET (which uses a slightly different syntax).
eFax does not support outbound faxing; by the same token, Faxaway and TPC.INT do not support inbound faxing. NetMoves goes both ways but doesn't support the Macintosh. It is possible to mix and match inbound and outbound services, but there's little point unless you are compelled by price issues (one service provides free outbound faxing in the New York City metropolitan area, for example).
The most useful tool for Mac users is Jfax's fax driver, since it enables you to fax from any desktop application. Faxaway and NetMoves appear to have similar drivers in development, but don't expect one for the Macintosh any time soon.
Weigh the pricing options carefully before selecting a service for outbound faxing. Although Internet faxing can be cost effective if much of your faxing is international, a regular fax machine or fax modem would be cheaper for sending local faxes that wouldn't incur time charges. For reference, a domestic U.S. fax sent via one of these Internet services typically costs a minimum of five cents per page (one page takes about 30 seconds at a rate of 10 cents per minute). The digital revolution is making the cost of all communications less sensitive to distance, so the savings one can obtain by using the Internet for faxing will gradually disappear for international faxing, as it has already done for domestic.
Security -- Internet faxing can raise significant security concerns. Just as email can be made more secure using digital cryptography and authentication, it's possible to make Internet faxing more secure than standard phone-based faxing. However, just like email, it can be trivial to abuse Internet fax services, and you must be certain you understand how Internet faxing operates to use these services securely.
If you use an email-based fax service, someone who can fake your email address in a "From" header (i.e., almost anyone) can send a fax which appears to be from you and is billed to you. Because of this, Internet faxing via email can impose unacceptable risks. The good news is that the owner of the email address receives a confirmation message when a fax has been delivered, providing an opportunity to correct the effects of any misappropriation.
NetMoves, a Windows-only fax service, uses cryptographic tools to solve this and other security holes. Essentially, NetMoves attaches a digital signature to the fax file. Unfortunately, NetMoves seems to have decided not to support the Macintosh. Faxaway claims to be working on support for PGP, which would work as well, but there's no word on their commitment to the Mac. Web-based services like HT-NET or Interpage can (and do) offer SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) connections and password protection to avoid these security problems, but SSL connections can be slow.
Building a Better Internet Fax Service -- There's still room for improvement in Internet fax services; here's a short list of the features to look for in the future, plus things I'd like to see.
Reading: Welcome advances would include QuickTime support for TIFF-F that will enable QuickTime-savvy programs to display multi-page faxes. Internet fax tools should also provide more Mac-like interfaces, editing tools to enable annotations, and PGP support to decrypt inbound fax attachments and verify digital signatures.
Composing: My ideal fax client would exist primarily as a driver accessible from any application, but it would also include an address book that is fully integrated with my email client.
Sending: Faxes will eventually include digital signatures and encryption for outbound faxes.
Automation: Expediting the management of faxes - including printing, forwarding, receiving, and display - could be automated, though none of the systems examined above support scripting.
Web option: Although email makes a better fax interface than the Web in most instances, a good fax service should provide a supplemental Web interface.
The Benefits of Internet Faxing -- Real efficiency can be derived from integrating different forms of communication into a common interface, such as when you combine faxes and email. Several Internet fax services go a step further in this integration process, enabling voice mail messages to be delivered to you as email attachments. You can also collect your email with a telephone by having a computer read it to you.
For now, though, I'm sticking with combining faxes and email via Jfax, my favorite service. Jfax has built a significant lead in the effort to support the Macintosh for Internet faxing. However, the reality of Internet faxing continues to improve, and room remains for another company to set the standard for Macintosh support in the Internet faxing field.
[Hudson Barton is president of Highwinds Trading Company, a venture in software development, consulting, and Internet services concentrating on security and email issues, especially as they relate to the Macintosh.]