Fax Machines May Soon Get Some Colorful Characters

Soon that dull gray document of modern life - the fax - will get a makeover. It will come in color. Or at least, it might come in color.

Manufacturers are poised to offer it, if they determine people really want it.

That might seem like a silly question. Ever since someone offered an alternative to Henry Ford's all-black Model T, consumers have gravitated toward color. Movies, TV, cameras, printers, and even newspapers have made the switch. Faxing would easily go the same way were it not for one huge obstacle: Internet e-mail.

Skeptics wonder: If people can zip color files to each other more cheaply via the Internet, will color faxing really take off?

Next month, the International Telecommunication Union is expected to adopt a color-faxing standard. This will allow manufacturers to build competing machines that can intercommunicate. A San Jose, Calif., concern called Compressent Corp., will be out of the chute early next month with color faxing software called ChromaFax.

It's an intriguing idea. For $69.95 (initial buyers will get a $20 mail-in rebate), you can fax color documents from your computer and make free, receive-only copies of the software to give away to your buddies. If they use that software, the documents you send enter their computers in color. If they use other faxing software or a regular fax machine, the transmission comes through in black-and-white.

Compressent is finding plenty of interest in color faxing from law-enforcement agencies, travel agents, and even accountants. (If you've ever tried to decipher a faxed version of a color photo or chart, you know why.) The company has signed deals to bundle its technology with a few modem manufacturers, phone companies, and at least one computermaker. The next step is to migrate to those all-in-one devices that can print, fax, scan, and make copies, says Shelley Harrison, Compressent's senior vice president of marketing.

It's an easy technological hop. Manufacturers are already introducing multifunction products that can print, scan, and copy in color. But they're divided about whether it's worth the effort to incorporate color faxing.

Hewlett-Packard, whose OfficeJet 600 series will show up in stores in the next few days, is skeptical. Although its new machines print, scan, and copy in color, Wade Mears, product manager for the line, doubts consumers will want to add color faxing.

For one thing, he says, it takes much longer to send a color fax than one in black-and-white, which boosts transmission costs. For another, the resolution of the fax doesn't match the quality of the original, which can be sent intact via the Internet.

Xerox, on the other hand, says it will incorporate the technology in future devices. Its new multifunction product, the HomeCentre, handles everything in color except faxing.

The payoff may come in a convergence of the fax and the Internet, says Debbie Abbott, Xerox's marketing director for multifunction products.

Several companies already offer international faxing services over the Internet as a way to cut phone costs. The same logic could be used for color faxing. The volume of faxes continues to grow, points out Ms. Harrison of Compressent. "This year will be the biggest year ever for faxing."

With a little color, faxing could stick around for quite awhile.

* Kudos to sharp-eyed readers of my last Tech Trends column on personalized guns who noticed I'd flubbed a statistic. It should have read: Over a 10-year period, 1 out of 6 officers killed with a handgun was shot with his own weapon.

Keep the comments coming to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or my "In Cyberspace" forum at www.csmonitor.com

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