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The Cutting Edge / Personal Technology | Cyberspace

Just the Fax: No Machine and No Paper


If you've been thinking about getting a fax machine--and who in these gizmo-obsessed days has not--it might be time to reconsider.

In the last few months, two Internet companies have begun offering free fax telephone numbers to anyone with an e-mail address. With your unique fax number, you can receive transmissions from anyone--all without owning a fax machine.

Faxes are sent to a central location, where they're converted into image files and immediately dispatched to you as e-mail attachments. Once you've received the image file through e-mail, all that's left to do is print it out.

The free part of this deal shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, there are companies now offering free computers, free Internet access and free Internet software.

But the beauty of the new Internet fax services isn't just that they're free. In many ways, they're better than the old system of having a fax machine and extra phone line--at least for those who don't live under a constant heap of facsimile transmissions.

Used in conjunction with a free Web-based e-mail service such as Yahoo Mail, you can check for faxes while on the road--as long you have access to a computer with an Internet connection. Transferring faxes to different locations is simple since all it involves is sending an e-mail message.

One of the things I've always hated about faxes is that they're so easily lost--and viewed by unwanted eyes--in the huge heaps of paper that pile up in an office each day. With the Internet services, your faxes go directly to your e-mail account, where you can later move them to a folder and store them electronically.

One final benefit to these fax services is that documents just look better since you can print them out on a laser printer instead of using the usual inkjet fax machine found in most homes.

The two California companies that have begun offering this service are Inc. ( of Menlo Park and CallWave Inc. ( of Santa Barbara, which has named its service FaxWave. Both services can be used by any type of computer that can view a .TIF image file.

You can't send a fax using the two services. For that, you will need a fax program on your computer.

But for most people, the problem has always been receiving faxes, which often requires you to either disconnect your computer from the Internet or buy a fax machine.

There are actually many companies now offering some type of Internet fax mailbox service, although they all charge a fee, usually ranging from $10 to $15 a month. That's not much money, but for someone who receives only a few faxes each day, it's $10 to $15 too much.

The free services have bought up huge blocks of phone numbers, with most of the numbers located in rural areas. My personal FaxWave number is somewhere in the Stockton-Modesto area.

Antonia Inman, marketing director for FaxWave, said the company plans to make its money back by selling other premium services to its customers, such as automatic fax paging to a mobile phone or advanced capabilities to send faxes over the Internet.

The company is also banking on some revenue from advertising, which could be placed on the cover sheet of faxed documents. is taking a similar approach and will offer its own premium services such as sending documents to fax machines via e-mail, Web-based optical character recognition and remote archiving of faxed documents.

The main disadvantage to these services is that the fax files can get very large and take several minutes to download. I sent a 35-page fax to myself using the FaxWave service and it ended up as about a 1-megabyte file. A single typed page came to about 60 kilobytes--a reasonably quick download. has dealt with the file size problem by compressing its fax image files, although that requires users to have a special viewer installed on their computers. The single page took up 28 kilobytes through

EFax's image compression only works for Windows PCs using the company's viewer. Users of other computers receive uncompressed image files.

The size of these files shouldn't make too much difference if you receive only short faxes, but beware that some online services do have restrictions on the size of e-mail attachments. Yahoo, for example, limits attachments to about 3 megabytes.

There are some small problems with both these services. For example, I couldn't connect with my FaxWave number on one occasion when I was testing the service. The problem cleared up quickly and I've had no problems since.

As for EFax, its requirement for a special viewer is a bit irritating, especially for those of us who work on many different computers or sometimes use other people's computers to check e-mail. Fortunately, the viewer is only about 160 kilobytes.

FaxWave uses the image viewer that comes standard with Windows 95 and requires no special software. Apple users have to find their own viewer that can open .TIF or .XIF files.

In the end, both these services are so similar that, at least at this point, either one would be a fine choice.

Ultimately, the real battle between the Internet fax services will be determined by how well they expand their basic service with new features, preferably free ones.

Sending faxes over the Internet, toll-free fax numbers, optical character recognition and fax archiving are obvious candidates that could make the services a mainstay for not only the home and home office, but larger businesses as well.

Ashley Dunn can be reached via e-mail at

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