Personally, I'm hoping for the extinction of the fax machine.

E-mail and attachments already do at least as good a job of sending most documents around as faxes do, and the classic misuse of the fax typing a document in a word processor, then printing it, faxing it, and having someone retype it on the other end is still surprisingly common.

There are, however, a number of things that make faxes indispensable, at least for now. They can deal with documents that exist only on paper (such as a photocopy or a handwritten note). Plus, some people can receive faxes but not e-mail. Faxes can also be easier and more foolproof. There's no worry about whether or not your recipient can open an e-mail attachment.

For these reasons, faxes aren't likely to disappear anytime soon, and new software and services are making them easier to send and receive without an actual fax machine.

One option is the fax modem. Most modems today can handle faxes as well as e-mail or Web pages. They display incoming faxes on-screen or send them to a printer, and also allow you to fax from the screen. A common arrangement is for the software to offer a fax option in addition to the usual print option. Instead of sending your document to the printer, you send it as a fax to whatever recipients you specify.

The main advantage of this is that it's cheap. For a home office or small business, it may be impractical to buy a fax machine and maintain a separate phone line just to receive a couple of faxes a month. Fax modems offer a way around this expense.

The problem is that sometimes you do need to deal with paper. If you're faxing a document you've created in your word processor, that's fine, but what about something that you only have on paper, or something that needs a signature?

In cases like this, it may be worth investing in a scanner instead of a fax machine. Scanners are available for about the same price as a fax machine, and can scan photos in addition to documents for the occasional fax. Software included with some scanners offers direct scan-to-fax capability.

For documents that need to be signed before faxing, another trick is to scan your signature. If you don't have your own scanner, you can do this at a copy shop that has scanners available. Once you have an image of your signature, you can cut and paste it into your documents as needed.

Another fax problem small offices and telecommuters may encounter is that the phone line is always tied up, either because someone is talking or is online. You can probably wait until you get off the line to send out your own faxes, but someone trying to fax you is unlikely to persevere if they get a busy signal for an hour.

The best way to deal with this without installing three phone lines one for voice, one for Internet access, and one for faxes is to use a service that combines faxes and e-mail, such as JFAX (www.jfax.com).

Any fax sent to your JFAX number is converted to an e-mail attachment that you can open, view and print with a free JFAX application for Windows or the Macintosh. You can also send faxes and receive more than one fax at the same time. The service costs $12.50 a month with a $15 set-up fee, and a free receive-only option is available. In either case, JFAX makes it possible to receive your faxes by e-mail while traveling or working from home.

For larger offices, it is still most economical to share a fax machine with its own dedicated line. But for one-person operations or home offices, an ideal combination is to rely on fax software and possibly a scanner for the faxes you send, and to sign up for a service for the faxes you receive. You can then do everything you can do with a fax machine, but without the machine and a dedicated fax line.

If you already have a fax machine, you might even save more by eliminating the extra phone line than by continuing to use it. Maybe you can store it in the closet next to the typewriter. Like other office equipment that deals only with paper, the fax machine's days may be numbered.

Christopher Ott is a freelance technology writer and can be reached via e-mail at chrisott@earthlink.net. Individual questions cannot be answered, but suggestions for future columns will be considered.

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