On Fax Machines and Dying Technologies

I just wasted the better part of a day chasing down issues with both a traditional fax machine and two different e-fax providers (who shall remain nameless.) After hours of futile troubleshooting, I want to pull an Office Space on our old Brother fax and tell my users that we no longer support faxing.

A comment on Reddit sums it up neatly:

Q: “How do I eliminate the need for fax machines?”
A: “Wait for the old people to die.”

OK, so that’s a bit harsh, but why are modern IT shops forced to support fax (an invention that got its start in the 1920s and has been used commercially since about 1964)?

I can think of a few reasons:

  • Your company deals with governmental or other federal agencies
  • You have some sort of compliance/regulatory mandate in place
  • You have legacy systems that still use fax, or you have vendors or customers who simply cannot share documents any other way

In my case, we simply haven’t gotten around to updating the business processes that require us to use fax; however, there are several projects on the horizon that will eventually reduce, if not completely eliminate, our use of it.

So how best to support a dying technology? Managing expectations is key. When our incumbent e-fax provider started to have severe technical issues with inbound faxing and couldn’t tell us if/when it would be fixed, we set up a trial account with another e-fax provider. As we slowly move users onto the new system, we’ll tell them explicitly that while the new provider should be more reliable than the old one, there’s no 100% guarantee that all faxes will be delivered on time or with total accuracy. Just like email delivery, fax is “best-effort”.

The other thing that you need to do is to manage change. Many organizations take the “because we’ve always done it this way” approach; IT’s job is to help with both the process and technology changes required to bring the organization into the future. Unfortunately, to get this right, it takes time and careful planning.

Finally, the Agile war cry of “fail fast, fail often, fail cheap” applies in certain cases. Since we’re in a bad spot with our current provider, we were forced to abandon our usual planning process and quickly evaluate alternative providers. By only moving a few users to the new system, it allows us to kick the tires a bit, and if we don’t like what we see, we can just move on to the next provider with little to no risk; ultimately, we’ll have a working fax solution until we can do away with it altogether. Don’t be afraid to go for the quick wins and fix some of the immediate issues to keep your users happy until the larger changes can be implemented.

What are some of your strategies for dealing with legacy tech? Would love to hear about it in the comments.

Photo by Minor Prophet

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