At 10:20 a.m. in Boston, Marie Henseler receives an urgent phone call from her boss doing business in New York. He needs a copy of a contract as soon as possible. The young executive assistant quickly finds and feeds the contract into the company's fascimile, or ``fax,'' machine, then dials the number of a fax in the vicinity of her boss. By 10:25, a copy of the document is in his hands.
Although fax machines have been used by some businesses for more than 20 years, recent advances in technology have dropped prices and made the machines smaller and easier to use. The effect has been a sudden spurt in fax use as a telecommunications device.
Fax sales, in fact, are booming. Roughly 295,000 fax machines will be sold in the United States in 1987, an increase of 600 percent over the 50,000 sold in 1983, reports CAP International Inc., a market research firm in Marshfield, Mass. By 1990, the number could reach 540,000, CAP estimates.
A facsimile machine is like a photocopier, except that it can send and receive images, including black-and-white photographs, over telephone lines. A single page can shoot around the world in less than a minute. For many types of documents, the fax has become a faster, more reliable alternative to overnight mail services.
Facsimile use has become so widespread that many businesspeople include fax numbers on their business cards. International fax directories are also being published.
Fax is possbily the most useful to consultants and lawyers who, in the course of their business, have to see hard copies of documents. Martin Stankard, a consultant with Productivity Development Group in Cambridge, Mass., points out that faxes provide a much more efficient way for banks to verify signatures on checks.
While the fax will improve white-collar productivity, the results in most cases won't be earthshaking, according to Mr. Stankard. ``It's mostly a convenience item,'' he says.
In addition to convenience, price is another factor contributing to the fax's recent popularity. Competiton among manufacturers has been heating up, lowering fax prices. The number of manufacturers has doubled since 1984, to about 20. The top three in 1986 were Ricoh, Canon, and Pitney Bowes.
Joseph Casciana, a marketing assistant in Canon's facsimile division, predicts that the price of an average facsimile machine will decrease from about $3,000 to $2,000 within the next three years. These lower prices, coupled with the fax's ability to run unatttended during off-peak hours, has made the machine a more cost-effective means of communication.
``We expect the people we do business with to have a fax,'' says Ms. Henseler, an employee of the Fortress Corporation, a Miami-based high-security storage company. ``It is considered unprofessional not to have one.'' This sentiment, Henseler adds, has arisen just within the last six months or so.
Since a facsimile machine can transmit photographs and signatures, a function word processors cannot fulfill, the fax offers an alternative to office computer systems and telex. The fascimile also requires considerably less training to operate than a computer does.
In the 1970s, a United Nations forum, the Consultative Committee for International Telephone & Telegraph established worldwide standards for the production of fax machines to enable those from different manufacturers to communicate. This created a nearly universal compatibility and greatly increased the fax's utility as a communications device.
Although its sales are on the increase, the fax does not pose a serious threat to the office computer system in the long run. Russell Frye of International Technology Consulting Group of Charlestown, Mass., points out that each device has its own strengths. A fax can send photos and signatures but cannot edit text. A computer can edit text but cannot send photos.
But in December 1985, Gamma Technology Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif. intoduced a way to combine these two strengths: the fax circuit board. When attached to an Internatuonal Busines Machines personal computer or a compatible, the circuit board allows the computer to use software that enables it to communicate with faxes; that is, to send and receive graphics data as well as edit them.
So far, more than 20 foreign and domestic manufacturers have sold more than 10,000 fax boards, says George Mount, Gamma product manager. CAP predicts that fax board sales will reach 60,000 in 1989.
The fax board industry thus represents a new branch of the growing image communication market which will compete with the fax by increasing office computer useage.
Although computer systems are firmly entrenched in the office, the ``paperless office,'' a world in which all communication would be done electronically via computer, will not come about anytime soon. There are too many cases where business still needs hard copies of certain documents, a fact manufacturers say will keep fax sales growing.