`NO one can keep up with it.'' ``Its uses are expanding daily.''
``It defines the coming era.''
As if subdued by a ``B'' movie extraterrestrial, global village earth is being beguiled and overcome by an electronic juggernaut. The ``it'' everyone is talking about is, of course, the fax (short for facsimile) machine, the typewriter-sized appliance which enables a document to be sent around the world over telephone lines in about 20 seconds.
Creative options are so numerous and so economical that the machines are doing more than just revolutionizing the way businesses do business. They are stretching electronic tentacles ever further into many aspects of international life.
The machine played a key role in the Chinese pro-democracy movement of last June, for instance, by allowing dissidents instantly to circulate and receive censored documents and news reports both inside the country and overseas. It is also causing a furor over waste and unsolicited use (see box below).
Reasons for the revolution - besides obvious convenience and control - are twofold: The per-page speed of transmission has been vastly improved, reducing transmission costs. And overall prices of individual units has come within range of the single consumer - many selling for less than $1,000, compared with $7,500 to $10,000 a decade ago.
So, besides the initial use for transferring documents, reports, charts, photos, and press releases, consider this ever-burgeoning list of applications: Faxes for order-by-phone menus, doctor-to-pharmacy prescriptions, contracts, receipts. Faxes for ads, faxes for coupons. Faxes in emergency rooms to communicate with regional labs. In central offices to communicate with branches. There are even ``fax potatos'' - people who send faxes between floors of the same building, rather than delivering it in person.
They are now seen in boats, cars, greenhouses, and on farms. They have become a way to trade recipes. A way to copy homework. A way to send bills. Time magazine prints a special fax number for letters to the editor. One call-in radio show solicits jokes this way. Everything from thank-you notes to valentines are being sent via fax, and one stockbroker keeps one on his yacht to keep track of stocks while at sea.
In addition to being a must for major hotel chains that cater to business customers accustomed to faxing documents, there is a swelling number of public fax stations. A directory of such fax stations, known as McCue's Public Fax Inc., has grown from 411 entries in August 1986, to 9,000 by last January, to an expected 20,000 by next January. And in Tokyo, one chain of coffee shops features coin-operated fax machines.
In the United States, machines have been the object of more and more litigation and regulation from state governments wishing to protect their citizens from onslaughts of unwanted solicitation. And they have been the object of much consternation by users, including parents who want to keep children from copying homework from friends.
The fax machine ``is absolutely indispensable,'' says Tim Choy, partner in a small Los Angeles public-relations firm, which has six employees feeding announcements and notices into a machine all day. The company purchased a single machine nine months ago and now employees say they are completely dependent on it.
``Within three months, we had forgotten what it was like before we had it,'' Mr. Choy says. ``Now we don't know what to do during a power failure.''
Essentially, if somewhat simplistically, the facsimile machine scans a piece of paper, turning the printed information into digital, electrical impulses - audible electric tones - that can be transmitted over telephone lines to a receiving fax machine. These impulses are then transferred back into digital information and onto special or plain paper.
Facsimile transactions are far cheaper than the alternative overnight letter. The same 20-page document that can be sent for $1.25 by fax costs $14 by Federal Express. And since the cost of machines has plummeted, the number of small-business owners and home office workers who've invested in them has skyrocketed.
Some estimates say there are 20 million home users of fax machines.
So all indications are that the consumer curve for fax machines will continue to rise steeply.
According to Dataquest Inc., a high-tech marketing research firm, 157,000 fax machines were sold in 1985 for $500 million. In 1987, 500,000 units were sold for about $1 billion. The Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association in Washington projects sales over $3 billion by 1990. In terms of unit numbers, the National Office Products Association predicts 2.3 million units sold in 1992, an increase of 162 percent over the 863,000 units sold in 1988, and nearly six times the 424,600 sold in 1987.
Oddly enough, the idea behind this hot technology started in 1842, when a Scottish clockmaker named Alexander Bain transmitted crude images short distances. German inventors improved the process in the 1920s for the primary purpose of sending photographs overseas.
Some corporations have data networks connected by a single, master fax machine, which can distribute documents simultaneously to scores of branch offices. Less expensive machines have been made popular by Japanese manufacturers: Canon, Ricoh, Sharp, Toshiba.
Though much has been made of the threat fax machines pose to the overnight-letter industry, many company spokesmen report that the results are not yet devastating.
``There will always be certain legal documents that have to be sent in their original forms,'' says John Snyder, a corporate spokesman for Federal Express in Seattle. His company, however, has clearly felt the impact from the fax explosion. The company's growth rate has fallen by half, from 64 to 30 percent, between 1987 and 1988.
Just last month, the United States Postal Service began a fax experiment by installing machines in 260 post offices across the country. The plan is for them to be available for sending and receiving, and to be payable by credit card. Rates have not yet been determined.
And besides logging extra long-distance income for the phone companies - MCI estimates $9 billion in long-distance fax calls by 1991, fax machines are also spawning auxiliary businesses and business ideas. The Hartford (Conn.) Courant is offering a new service, sending 1,500-word summaries of the next day's news condensed onto a single page. And a firm known as ``Faxages'' is offering a line of professionally styled and graphically illustrated fax-data cover pages. Using pre-printed cover sheets with such titles as ``memo,'' ``business,'' ``greetings,'' ``legal,'' and ``humorous,'' the new line is an attempt to bring design and style to the world of faxing.