Some scholars credit the spread of fax machines as a factor in the downfall of the Soviet Union. Good for the fax. But that's pretty much been the lone high point for the venerable device in the last 25 years. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, faxing has been a joke. It's one of the most expensive, least flexible, and most annoying ways to send documents in the digital age. Everyone knows this—even, I'll bet, the people who make fax machines. Faxing requires special equipment (the machine, a phone line), it's stationary (I'm guessing you've never sent a fax from a plane), it wastes paper, and it's a hassle. Yet for all its well-known limitations, faxing persists. How often are you asked by someone—your bank, your insurance company, your lawyer—to "please sign this and fax it back"? If it's less than once a month, consider yourself blessed.
The main reason faxing lives on, of course, is because of another ancient and mystifying custom: signing a piece of paper to make it official. God only knows why this fetish persists. Many countries have laws allowing for electronic signatures on documents, but it's the rare institution that will accept your click as proof of agreement. So it seems we're stuck. As long as people want to see your scribble on a piece of paper, you need to have a fax machine, or at least a way to approximate one.
I don't have a fax machine in my home office. I don't own a scanner, either. (I don't want to give manufacturers of either cursed device the satisfaction.) For a long time, I would just ask my wife—who has a job in a real office, surrounded by squealing faxes—to do my faxing for me. Over the last year or so, though, I've increasingly relied on JotNot, an app that turns my iPhone into a scanner. JotNot is terrific at what it aims to do. To scan a page, you snap a picture of it and crop and scale it with a few on-screen swipes; JotNot then processes it into a PDF. But this is still somewhat tedious, especially if you've got lots of pages to scan.
Last week, I finally found what I've been looking for: a way to sign and fax—or e-mail—a document using just my computer. It doesn't require you to print out your forms or sign them with a pen. You will need a camera, but only once; after that, it's painless. The system is called HelloFax. And it's terrific.
Here's how HelloFax works. First, you sign a blank piece of paper. Then you take a picture of your signature and send it to the site. Now you're free to sign and send documents that you've got stored digitally. (In other words, HelloFax is only for e-mailing and faxing files that you can find online or that people have e-mailed you; you can't use it to fax a physical document.) To begin, you upload your form to HelloFax. The system understands a wide range of file types, including PDFs, Word documents, and several more esoteric ones. HelloFax transforms the document into an image, and then it lets you add text to that image; this allows you to fill out your name, age, SSN, and other information on virtually any kind of form. Because HelloFax treats your document as an image, you do have to manually position the cursor in each box—in other words, you can't hit tab to go from field to field—but I still found it pretty easy to do.
When you're done filling in your form, click "Add Signature" and HelloFax will pop in the scribble that you photographed earlier. (It has controls to let you move and scale your John Hancock to look just right.) Finally, enter the fax number or e-mail address of your recipient, and boom! You've just faxed something, and you didn't even have to leave your chair.
There have been other services that purport to let you fax from computers. But none of these is as straightforward as HelloFax; either they don't allow you to fill out documents on your computer (which means you've got to print out and scan, at which point you might as well get a fax machine) or they require you to download software. HelloFax, by contrast, is a Web site, so you don't need to download anything and it works everywhere. (It doesn't work very well on smartphone browsers, though.) For now, HelloFax is free, but it will send faxes only to U.S. numbers and it imposes a 20-fax limit, after which you've got to ask the site to let you fax some more. (The company's FAQ says: "If you [exceed the limit], email us at email@example.com with some feedback and, if you're nice, we'll give you some more free pages.") It also doesn't yet receive faxes. The company is working on a paid service that lifts the limit and allows you to get faxes, but it hasn't announced a price.
How much should you pay for such a service? Fax machines sell for as little as $40, which is just $3 a month for a year. If HelloFax charges any more than that, then it might not seem worth it. But that's the wrong way to calculate things: Compared with printing out, filling in, and feeding sheets of paper by hand, HelloFax is a dream. I'd pay $5 a month—or even $2 per fax—just for the ease of use. And unlike a fax machine, HelloFax can also e-mail documents. It's almost worth it just as a tool for filling out and sending tax and insurance forms.
HelloFax is a small startup, and though I'm hoping everyone begins to use it, it's a bit early to predict that it can kill the fax machine. The idea of digitizing your signature could be catching on far beyond HelloFax, though. Last week, Apple unveiled a developer release of Mac OS 10.7—known as Lion—which includes a slick Signature Capture app that works just like the one in HelloFax. You autograph a piece of paper and hold it up to your Mac's camera; the system captures and processes your signature, which is then available to all your programs. I'm hoping Microsoft, Adobe, and other companies adopt the convention, allowing you to insert your signature into Word, Acrobat, and every other office program. That's probably a few years off (Lion is scheduled to be released only this summer). Still, it's clear that the fax machine's death warrant has been signed. I can't wait to dance on its grave.