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New Stuff That Turns Your Phone Into an E-Mailbox

September 09, 1996|DAN AKST

First there was the telephone, then came the Internet. Now if only someone could put them together a little more effectively, wouldn't life be grand?

A couple of new products attempt to do just that, with surprising success. Perhaps the more interesting of the two is an Internet-based service called JFax. For $12.50 a month, JFax will give you a dedicated local phone number that will accept faxes or voice messages and forward both to the e-mail address of your choice. Or for $19.95, you can have separate fax and voice numbers.

Consider the possibilities. If you're in the entertainment industry, for example, JFax will gladly set you up with local numbers in Los Angeles, New York and London, so you can have a presence in the three capitals of pop culture. If you're a software developer, how about a local number in Silicon Valley?

I tested JFax and found it supremely simple to use. You can sign up at, the company's Web site, where you can also download the necessary fax-management and voice-message software. (It's quite user-friendly, I found.) When your account is activated, usually in less than 24 hours, you're all set. When I sent a fax to my JFax number, it appeared in my AT&T Worldnet e-mail account almost immediately.

The company also provides a personal identification number, or PIN, so you can customize the outgoing message on your phone. If you're far from home and don't want to pay for a toll call, you can even change your outgoing message by e-mailing a sound file that you've recorded on your computer.

I had expected downloading faxes and voice messages to be onerous, but they are sufficiently compressed so it really isn't too bad at 28,800 bps. (The average voice message is probably about 25k, although the 30-second maximum is 49k.) Besides, at home my fax machine and computer share a phone line, which means faxes often can't get through because my computer is connected to the Internet.

With JFax, incoming faxes aren't obstructed and, of course, there's no need for fax paper--or even a fax machine. Also, it was nice to have voice and fax messages right there with my e-mail; fax messages can simply be dumped to a printer, although most of the faxes I get can go straight into the trash, and voice messages are played through the computer's sound card and speakers. If I were traveling, I could download both without a toll call just by using the modem of my portable PC to dial the local Worldnet access number wherever I happened to be.

JFax, which is privately held and based in New York, notes that a JFax line is cheaper than a business phone line in most places and that, using the voice feature, people can send e-mail without a computer for the cost of a local telephone call. Discounts are offered for establishing numbers in several cities at once and you can also get a toll-free number.

JFax is continually adding to the roster of cities where you can get a local JFax number. San Francisco, Atlanta and other U.S. cities are already covered, and Johannesburg, South Africa, and Sydney, Australia, are coming soon, the company says.

Jfax isn't perfect, of course. For $12.50, you get 100 voice messages or fax pages; extra ones cost 20 cents each, which can add up. Also, if you're planning to use JFax for voice mail while you're on the road, make sure your laptop computer has sound capabilities. Most older models, such as my trusty little Compaq Aero, do not.

Note too that to use JFax, your e-mail system must be MIME-compliant, meaning it has to be able to handle binary file attachments in the most common way. MIME is quite standard among online providers nowadays, with the notable exception of CompuServe, which still doesn't do MIME. (America Online, by contrast, does MIME beautifully and invisibly.) CompuServe users who want to use Jfax will need to go through some extra rigmarole to get it to work.

On the other hand, CompuServe users can sign up for a CompuServe Communications Card, which lets them get their e-mail by phone. That's right, kind of the opposite of JFax; you call up and a computer reads your mail to you. The CompuServe card also offers voicemail, e-mail via pager and cut-rate long-distance calling. CIS (that's CompuServe Information Service; the abbreviation is commonly used) says, a la JFax, that it plans to let you get faxes this way as well.

I first heard about this CompuServe service from a reader, Dr. David Shapiro of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, who gave this account by e-mail, evidently without benefit of hypnosis.

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