So you think that the idea of using a PC as a fax machine has lots of business appeal? Do your staff complain about how long they have to wait in front of the fax machine -- and most of them are sending documents created on their PCs? Or do you want to fax the same document to multiple recipients, something you like to think leads itself nicely to automation? Are you bothered by the fact that everyone is taking fax for granted so much that they leave confidential documents out in the open? Finally, is lurking behind all these questions is the desire to leverage your technology investment with another application ripe for networking? Well, computer-based fax sounds good in theory, but the marriage of fax and PC technology is still not quite consummated yet. Indeed, Microsoft admitted there was still lots of room for improvement when they introduced earlier this summer of "Microsoft at Work" series of products. However, even the fax enhancements won't be available anytime soon. The issue is that an ordinary fax machine is tough competition. PC fax products are still too expensive, not as readily available, too difficult to operate, and too unreliable when compared to a fax machine. After all, you can purchase a fax machine just about anyplace these days for less than $500 without lots of technical knowledge. And you don't have to be a "systems" person to keep it running (as long as someone remembers to keep it filled with paper) nor to operate (just dial the numbers and push the big red button). So should you give up on this technology? No so fast. You can make a compelling business case, provided you set your targets for winning applications that can benefit the most from PC fax. To help you look for these cherries, consider the following general guidelines: First, you need to get away from thinking about replacing ordinary paper-based fax machines with computers: "These systems do not replace a fax machine, but augment it in special situations," says Gregory Han, president of Han and Associates (Key Biscane, Fl, 305 361 2133), a Unix and DOS integrator who has resold many computer-based fax systems, including Unix servers from Visifax (V Systems, 714 545 6442). In other words, consider a strategy in which you will use both PC fax and ordinary fax equipment in your office, but for different tasks. The best business case that we can make is to immediately implement a new modem strategy for your company: as you replace older, slower, data-only modems with newer models, consider buying modems that provide both high-speed data rates (at least 14,400 bits per second are the latest breed) along with built-in fax features: the incremental cost of the fax hardware is less than $50, and if you shop carefully, many modem vendors include some fax software as part of the deal. This means for minimal costs (you were going to upgrade these modems anyway), you can get fax-capable modems. Use these fax modems for sending, not receiving. Computers work better for sending faxes in most circumstances. Why? The reliability and ease of use for an ordinary fax machine is hard to match, let alone beat, with a PC fax product -- meaning that the moment you want to receive a fax on your computer, you have to deal with having the PC powered on, having the appropriate software loaded, waiting for the computer to print out the image, and other chores. "Reliability [of computer-based fax] is still a problem, there is still some baby-sitting required," said Gregory Han. In addition, receiving faxes carries another hidden cost: all those faxes take up room on your disk drive: "We don't have excess storage capacity to hold faxes while they are waiting to be read," says David Willis, manager of Technology Integration for the American Red Cross (703 838 8503, Washington DC), who has evaluated many PC-based fax products. Consider how received faxes currently end up at their ultimate destination: does your nosy staff riffle through the fax pile, checking for their own faxes but looking at every one else's? Or do you have a "fax center" in your mailroom, where clerks distribute the faxes? Either way, people are doing a task manually that will be hard to automate: you have to build in the intelligence to route the fax with some technology. And these inbound routing technologies are still quite clunky and usually require some form of human intervention anyway to ensure that faxes are delivered to the proper recipients. Says the Red Cross' Willis, "There is no completely automatic and reliable way to direct incoming faxes via a server." Another reason why sending faxes from a PC doesn't work well has to do with signatures. Say someone faxes you a contract that you have to sign and fax back. With an ordinary fax machine, this is not a difficult operation. With a PC fax machine, it becomes a nightmare: first you have to figure out how to sign something that is still an image. You could scan in your signature, which requires an expensive and quirky device, or you could draw it directly on screen, but neither method works as well as a pen on paper. One way to marry the two technologies is to have them share the same phone line: "by plugging your fax machine into the handset jack on the fax modem and setting it to answer on the third or fourth ring creates a nice backup system in case the fax server fails," says Tony Croes, an analyst for Currid and Company (Houston, TX, 713 789 5995) who uses the Intel fax server. Where should you put this fax modem? You have two basic choices: in individual PCs or on your local area network, as a "fax server." See the sidebar for details on which strategy is best for you. Finally, consider the quality of the products you purchase. Stick to large companies like Hayes, US Robotics, Intel, Multitech and others for your modems. The money you save by buying off-brand modems will be more than overwhelmed by the lack of support by fax software and troubles down the road. "Hayes and Apple modems are the modems of choice for us," says Bard Williams, coordinator of technology for the Gwinnett county public schools (Lawrenceville, GA 404 822 6515) who has used a variety of DOS and Mac-based fax products. "The quality of the fax modem is the single biggest factor in a good fax system," says Han. "Fax modems do not talk to fax machines very well. My guess is that there are about five percent of the time a fax machine will not receive a fax from your particular modem." With this information under your belt, there are six top applications that work well with PC fax: 1. Broadcast fax. This is where you send the same document to multiple fax recipients. Using an ordinary fax machine means first printing it out on paper from your word processor, then sending it through the fax machine several times. With a PC fax server, you merely indicate which phone numbers you want to send it to, and it does the work. Broadcast fax is a nice PC-based application for other reasons: you have a record of which faxes went through, and which didn't. Indeed, you should examine carefully how these records or fax logs are constructed if users will do lots of broadcast fax. Han asks "how easy is it to tell what faxes were not sent, why not, and how easily do you resubmit faxes?" However, sometimes products "don't provide adequate status messages, particularly if a fax didn't go through," says the Red Cross' Willis. Most fax servers can redial a busy number several times, and some are smart enough to know that they are dialing a voice line and not to continue to annoy the person picking up the phone any further. However, you have to know the limitations of your product: "In general, the large address lists [of broadcast faxes] will give you another whole set of problems in administration and control than with ad hoc faxes," says Han. Some products won't be able to handle hundreds of recipients without lots of care and feeding. "However, progress is being made and the products coming out now are much better than they were one year ago." David Litvin, Assistant Director, Office of Information Technology Management for the City of New York (212 788 1548). agrees: "We put a Castelle unit to immediate use with a send list of over 100 names. The unit worked properly to a wide variety of receiving fax machines." Another limitation is that most fax servers only support a single client platform such as Mac, Unix, OS/2 and PC and most only work on one network operating system such as Novell's NetWare. Biscom is one exception: its products support a wide array of LAN operating systems and clients (800 477 2472). If you have only DOS and Windows clients, then Alcom (415 694 7000) is another choice for multiple LAN systems. 2. Sharing phone lines. Another situation ripe for PC fax servers is when businesses are highly motivated to share a fax telephone line: "In a school setting, we have a really tough time just funding the incoming voice lines that we do have, let alone fax lines," said Williams. Having a fax server on the network saves on the cost of individual phone lines to each workstation. "Network fax is no longer a frill in education, it is a necessity. We think about fax as an integral part of the network design," says Williams of Gwinnett County schools. Sharing resources becomes important when your faxing needs grow, and you should think about this before you purchase your first PC fax product. What happens if you need more phone lines to handle additional fax traffic? Gammalink (408 744 1400) has one of the widest product offerings for PC-based servers, handling multiple phone lines that feed into an internal PC modem board. "The [single-line] PC approach breaks down once you add several departments. We need to also add more lines when a crisis occurs," says the Red Cross' Willis. 3. Document security. If you want the ultimate in privacy and document security, then purchase a stand-alone PC fax product for each computer in your office. Making a business case for this level of hardware is difficult. However, you can justify it for certain users, such as the comptroller who is sending contracts to clients, or other sensitive information users within your company. There is nothing more morale-deflating than a staffer finding a memo on the fax machine concerning the demise of his or her entire department: something we've heard happen at many companies. 4. International faxing. If you send many faxes overseas, or if your overseas branches send many back home, consider using one of the third-party fax service providers, such as AT&T or InterFax (Skippack, PA, 215 584 1038). These services offer low-cost faxing (typically 50 cents per page, anywhere in the world, cheaper than the cost of an international phone call in most cases) in conjunction with electronic mail systems. (Interfax works in conjunction with the Internet, a world-wide system of computers that mostly has connected universities and government researchers, but is increasingly being used by businesses.) Shop these services carefully: there are some price differences and not everyone charges a fixed rate per page like AT&T. For example, MCI Mail charges over $6 for the first page, and over a $1 per additional page to send faxes to China; Compuserve charges $9 for the first page. Here's how these services work: You compose your document in your word processor, and send the plain text via an ordinary modem (not a fax modem) to the service provider's computer. They take care of formatting it (in many cases, they can store a scanned copy of your letterhead and signature and place them appropriately inside the document) and sending it to the recipient. They manage all the gear, so you don't have to worry about becoming your own network administrator, and they send you a bill at the end of each month, too. There are some caveats to using international fax service providers, of course: "It costs us a fixed 50 cents a page to send a fax with AT&T Easylink," said the Red Cross' Willis, "And while doing that around the world is a bargain, the dollars start to add up when most of the activity is sending a fax across the street." What if you just want to buy fax modems for your international users, and don't want to use a service provider? We recommend products from Gammalink, who has done the most work in terms of registering their modems with a wide variety of countries. Because the fax modem is a telephone device, each country's telephone agency must approve it before it can be sold. 5. Plain-paper distribution. If you get many faxes and store them, you have long since discovered that fax paper is not the best long-term storage medium. Here is where having a plain-paper fax machine comes in handy, and this might make sense to consider a PC fax machine for this application. "Heavy receiving situations should consider a plain paper fax. When the fax is received, it is printed, end of story," says Han. For these applications we recommend that you use a stand-alone (not networked) PC fax products mentioned earlier. The cost of these products is close to that of most plain paper fax machines, depending on whether you include the price of the PC and whether you share the laser printer with other applications. You will have to wait some extra time for the computer to prepare the fax image and print it out -- but you will obtain a fax on plain paper. 6. Mailing mixed messages. No, we are not talking here about mixing emotions or other psycho dynamics, but rather about mixing different kinds of electronic addresses in a single document. Say you want to send a proposal via fax to one person, via the US postal system for others, and via your own internal LAN-based electronic mail system for your own staff. Without a PC-based fax system, you would have to print out one copy for the fax machine, a second to be mailed, and attach an electronic copy of the document via email for your staff. At best, this is a cumbersome and trying process. If you experience this situation often (say once a week), then consider adding a fax server to your electronic mail system: it will improve productivity immensely, and reduce the preparation time for these mixed messages. And, given the costs you've spent on email already, the additional $1,000 to $1,500 software and similar price for hardware will pay back quickly in terms of increased productivity. To send a fax via email, you can either include the phone number in the message header or else pick an alias from your corporate directory in the email system. Either way will require some understanding of how the server interacts with the email system, but if you have mastered email then using a fax server is not much of a stretch. Word Perfect Office, Lotus' cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail, and others offer such fax gateways. Usually, you have a choice of products both from hardware and software: we recommend that you choose Intel fax modems (800 538 3373) with whatever software is appropriate for your email system, since these are supported by the greatest number of software products and widely available. Of course, there are limitations to this technology. You are generally limited to faxing plain text rather than a formatted document with all sorts of fonts. "We looked at using the fax gateway to Word Perfect Office's email, but you could only send text and .PCX files -- you couldn't even attach a Word Perfect document," said the Red Cross' Willis.