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December 2, 1996

Fax machines on the Internet? Panasonic has it right now

Every time I fantasize in this column about some new technology that will be available "in a few years," someone sends me a message within a few weeks saying they've got that technology now.

The latest example is a column I wrote on Oct. 7, with a follow-up on Oct. 28, describing various services to send faxes via the Internet, reducing long-distance (long lines) charges. I remarked that such services still needed to use slow local lines to make the final link to the receiving fax machine. Fax machines don't exist yet that can plug in to a LAN as a network node, entirely eliminating the need for any phone connection.

As it turns out, such fax machines are close at hand. Panasonic is working on a multifunction fax machine that happily hangs off a network. The first may arrive early in 1997. I was given a demonstration by Ritsuo Shirahama, manager of global affairs for Panasonic's Engineering Research Laboratory in Tokyo.

At the current state of development, Panasonic's prototype fax machines support both an RJ-11 jack, to plug in a regular phone line, and an RJ-45, to plug in a 10Base-T LAN. The fax machine can receive faxes from either port, depending on whether a fax is sent to it by phone or e-mail.

To send a fax by e-mail, a Windows user (for example), changes his or her printer driver to Panafax. The driver converts output from any Windows application into a compressed .TIF file. The driver asks you for an e-mail address (such as, you click on Send Fax, and off it goes.

Unlike a fax sent through long lines, a fax sent as e-mail is not limited to the usual 9.6Kbps or 14.4Kbps supported by most fax modems. The fax is transmitted from the sending company's LAN through the Internet and into the receiving company's LAN at the highest speeds of those links. And, of course, there is no long-distance cost, except the monthly cost of your Internet service.

Panasonic marketing executives wouldn't speculate on the list price or ship date of such a machine. There's no literature for this product yet, but you could send e-mail to Shirahama at

I believe we will see more of these products using the 'net rather than the switched telephone network. These products raise the question: Why not just use e-mail attachments for all documents, instead of using fax output? The answer is that there are many situations in which setting up (and paying to maintain) a full-blown PC is overkill.

My first use of fax technology, for instance, was in 1984, when I was an IS manager for a Manhattan banking firm. A nearby deli installed a fax machine and allowed customers to place lunch orders for take-out food by transmitting a filled-in order form. At that time, the service was novel, and this deli immediately got all our business. Did the deli need to get a PC, download e-mail, print out orders, and route them to the appropriate cook? No. Each cook simply picked up faxes as they came in -- a completely appropriate level of technology for them.

A more serious question arises over the exploding use of Internet bandwidth for voice, fax, and data transmissions. Software and hardware to make long-distance phone calls via the 'net (again, incurring no long lines charges) are growing rapidly in popularity. Why use long lines for anything when Internet service costs $19.95 per month for unlimited service? I'll examine the forthcoming "meltdown of the Internet" next week.

Brian Livingston is the co-author of Windows 95 Secrets Gold and four other Windows books (IDG Books). Send tips to or fax: (206) 282-1248.

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