If any of Rodney Eddins' accounting clients want his undivided attention at work first thing in the morning, they should shun e-mail or his telephone answering machine. Instead, they should send him a fax.
"The first thing I look at when I arrive is the incoming tray of my fax machine," said Eddins, a certified public accountant in Orlando, Florida, who has had his own practice for a decade. "If there's paper there, I feel like I have to look at it."
Only after he sorts through the morning's faxes -- though most on a recent day were ads like one for a workplace deodorizing service -- does Eddins log on to his computer and listen to his phone messages.
Still, like many other people, Eddins readily acknowledges a tortured relationship with his fax machine. Finding it essential for transmitting sensitive accounting documents and forms that require signatures, like tax returns, he grudgingly tolerates the noise and mess, not to mention the deluge of junk faxes.
"I actually hate my fax machine," he said. "But I need it."
In an office world that has gone largely digital, hand-held and wireless, the fax machine is ancient technology that just won't go away. No one shows off her fax machine the way she might, say, a BlackBerry. Yet the fax persists as a mockery of the much-predicted paperless society.
"Back in the mid-1990s, when e-mail was really coming into its own, we had high-priced consultants telling us that the fax was going the way of the horse and buggy," said Jonathan Bees, then a product manager for office machines at Konica; he is now editor in chief of Better Buys for Business magazine. Among the products he reviews for consumers these days are fax machines. "They're better than ever -- quieter, faster and with clearer reproduction," he said. "They haven't been passed by, after all."
Some 1.5 million fax machines were sold in the US last year for use at both businesses and homes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, based in Arlington, Virginia. Manufacturers estimate that they sold 500,000 more machines that combined a fax function with other functions, like copying and scanning.
Although sales of stand-alone fax machines are well below their peak of 3.6 million in 1997, some manufacturers say that if the multi-use machines are included, demand has been rising of late.
"We have been seeing an increase in fax sales for the last four or five years," said Paul Fountain, marketing product manager at Hewlett-Packard in San Diego.
In 1994, Hewlett-Packard left the fax market, believing the predictions of impending obsolescence. But, Fountain said, "We came back in 1998 because we realized the fax was not going away."
While fax machines are not as prevalent as computers in the workplace or home offices, Bill Young, a communications coach at the Strickland Group in New York City, said, "The fax has important functions that e-mail simply hasn't been able to take over."
Those would include reproducing signatures on documents like contracts, business proposals and medical prescriptions.
Another factor in the fax's favor is security.
"With a fax, you don't have to worry about computer hackers or someone stealing the password to the recipient's e-mail," Young said. "As long as there's a person at the receiving fax ready to remove the paper, the message is confidential." (Some computers have the capacity to convert the image of an incoming fax to e-mail, but that method loses the privacy advantage.)