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Fax Fever : From Business Tool to Homework Aid to Monkey Business, the Machine's Taken Over

January 25, 1989|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Why are all those Beverly Hills home fax machines purring away late at night? Stockbrokers passing hot tips on to blue-chip customers? Movie execs swapping script outlines into the night? Foodies sending finicky take-out orders to their favorite delis?

Would you believe homework?

According to fax machine providers, Westsiders who own the devices and have teen-agers (who understandably wish to remain anonymous) are likely to have their machines tied up at night with school assignments being faxed back and forth.

Parental Approval

And even those kids who do their homework unassisted are eager to use faxes to create electronic study groups--with parental approval. "My daughter is just waiting for somebody in her class to have a parent bring a fax machine home," said Bill McCue, president of Public FAX in Orange. "They always forget stuff . . . she'll call up a girlfriend and try to figure out how to do math problems. You ever try to do math over the phone?"

It's all part of the growing fax consciousness. Initially introduced as a business tool, facsimile machines--which send and receive documents over telephone lines in seconds--are suddenly being employed for an expanding array of personal uses: everything from playing chess to executing practical jokes to sending holiday greetings to locating missing children.

Not only has the abbreviation fax made it into Webster's, the number of fax machines in the country has grown to 1.7 million, according to estimates of analysts at San Jose's Dataquest, a high-tech market research and consulting firm. As most of those machines are still in offices, business applications are also expanding rapidly and becoming far more creative.

Doctors now routinely fax prescriptions to pharmacies. Fire department personnel fax blueprints of buildings to fire fighters at fire sites. And high-tech bill collectors now have a lightning-quick retort for deadbeats who claim they lost or didn't receive an invoice in the mail: They fax a new one immediately and it gets there in less than a minute.

Some observers claim the most innovative business application to date is intra-office faxing. "What we're starting to see at a lot of companies is people faxing one desk to another," said Ray Jeter of Just the Fax, an Irvine-based chain of fax retailers.

At AST Research, also in Irvine, employees frequently fax documents to each other rather than using messengers to deliver them. "We have regular mail clerks, but facsimile is so much faster," enthused Ron Place, office services supervisor. "We're spread out across two or three buildings . . . altogether in excess of half a million square feet . . . I don't know how we lived without (fax machines) before."

Fax has also enlivened the formats of radio stations eager to court those who listen at the office (especially since the Arbitron ratings were recently expanded to monitor office listening habits). Numerous stations have invited audiences to communicate with deejays via office fax machines. Some, such as WMMR in Philadelphia, have even asked listeners to "fax us your body parts."

That sport showed up recently on the sitcom "Murphy Brown," when the TV reporter played by Candice Bergen explained her absence from the office Christmas party, saying, "The memory of last year's party is still fresh in my mind. Perhaps you heard about it. I drank all the punch and faxed my chest to the West Coast."

On KABC's "Ken & Bob Co.," a high-rated, morning drive-time show, listeners have been instructed to fax in such things as stupid instructions that accompany products. The fax format became so popular the duo formed a special club for waxing silly with office listeners via fax.

But is this what the fax revolution has come to? Charter membership in Ken and Bob's "Nine O'Clock Fax Club"?

"You don't buy a fax machine to phone in trivia to a radio station or to order a ham and rye at a deli," contended McCue, who, as an industry consultant and publisher of a directory of 5,000 public fax stations, is sometimes called the "guru of fax."

"You buy it for a business use, then that expands. People who buy fax machines become enlightened--and addicted. They start using it in ways they never imagined."

Indeed, faxaholics are multiplying at such a frenetic rate that some experts predict the medium is likely to beat out the computer as the next major contraption to link up the entire world.

Stephan Schwartz, chairman and research director of the Los Angeles-based Mobius Society, has sent fax communication "all over the world" since the 1970s, when the medium was slow and commercially known by the name Qwip. Lately, Schwartz said he's been sending faxes between the United States and the Soviet Union to speed up a number of citizen diplomacy projects in which he's involved.

Even Into Soviet Union

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