Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 168 / SEPTEMBER 1994 / PAGE 76

Fax and figures. (Online)
by Robert Bixby

Sending a fax may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words on-line communications, but it ought to be. It represents the bulk of nonvoice interpersonal communication by wire.

Many people think of faxing as a means of rapidly transmitting text information over the telephone. if it were as simple as that, faxing would be a lot faster and more economical. But the fact is that faxes are entirely graphical in nature. Basically, a fax machine scans a sheet of paper at 100 or 200 dpi, compresses the monochrome graphical data, and sends it to a remote machine where a printer mechanism uses electrical impulses to turn dots on treated paper black so that that paper represents a facsimile of the original - facsimile being the root of the word fax.

Canon and Ricoh now have inkjet fax machines, and some companies (notably Okidata with its DOC-IT) now have laser fax machines capable of transmitting and receiving faxes at up to 400 dpi. But no matter how clear the fax is, it is always graphical.

Graphics files have several drawbacks. They take up a lot of space on your hard disk, and you can't simply cut and paste text out of them for use in other documents. A great many fax software companies have hitched up with OCR companies to make products that read faxes as they come in, turning them into ASCII text files to save disk space and to provide for easy editing. For example, Eclipse Fax with OCR is available for a list price of $84.95. Eclipse is now a part of Phoenix Technologies (846 University Avenue, Norwood, Massachusetts 02062; 617-551-4000).

Another problem with faxing is that it ties you to a location. Generally, fax machines are huge, bulky objects that require line current to operate and a telephone connection to communicate. Wouldn't it be great to have the ability to tax while on the move? Dead time spent riding in taxis or waiting for planes could be used for issuing communiques to coconspirators around the globe.

Laptops now come with tiny fax modems. A hookup is even available for sending faxes over pay telephones (by sending audio signals through the handset). But why should you put up with being wired to a grid? That was the question that launched a thou sand communicators.

Remember the recent excitement about hand-held communicators? One by one the major computer and software players trotted out their exciting new technologies, only to be repulsed by a cosmic yawn. Who could have guessed that people would prefer a keyboard on the desktop to a pen on the palmtop?

One of the main problems - or at least the most broadly reported problem - with palmtops is that handwriting recognition is still in its infancy. But the most important problem is much more basic than this. Although the machines were. initially sold as pocket communicators, they generally don't communicate at all. Some require additional purchase of very expensive proprietary hardware to allow them to communicate, and others are shipped with no more than a promise that someday they'll be able to communicate. Only at their own peril do companies bet on consumers' ability to defer gratification.

Undeterred by the failures of other companies, Motorola has introduced an interesting product called the Envoy. Motorola is about the oldest name there is in telecommunications, and true to its history, the company has brought out a product built around communications rather than having communications added on. Using the ARDIS wireless communications network available in 400 U.S. cities), Envoy can send and receive E-mail or faxes from any location. If you and a companion both own Envoys, you can also exchange data between them over an infrared communications link.

RadioMail, one of the AR-DIS-connected services available to Envoy users, provides Internet as well as commercial E-mail access. You can also make use of the Official Airline Guides service. Envoy comes with a built-in spreadsheet that's 1-2-3 and Excel compatible, and it may have a Quicken-related product, though that is still under discussion as this piece goes to press.

For more information, contact Motorola Wireless Data Group, 1201 East Wiley Road, Suite 103, Schaumburg, Illinois 60173; (800) 535-5775.

One area of online communications that doesn't get a lot of press is fax back or fax on demand. If you need to get a lot of information out in a hurry, fax on demand is the way to do it. The system works like this. You publish a fax-on-demand number for potential customers to call. When they call that number, they are asked what information they need and what fax number to send it to. As soon as the customer hangs up, the information is faxed. This service would allow a person to distribute routine or rapidly changing information without tying up a human operator. If you're interested in learning more about the technology and the technique, contact Fax on Demand, 15101 Surveyor Boulevard, Addison, Texas 75244; (800) 329-1777.