eFax service - one gateway between the fax and e-mail worlds

For many years, the eFax service has been one of several competitors to provide a "gateway" between the world of telephone facsimile ("fax") machines and the world of e-mail. Since anyone can get a free Web-based e-mail account, this means anyone can handle faxes - even without a fax machine.

One version of the eFax service is free. Under this plan one can receive up to 20 faxes per month, using a unique telephone number with which one is provided. When someone sends a fax to that telephone number, the document is converted to an image file which is e-mailed as an "attachment" to the e-mail address you specify when signing up for the service.

Because the attached file is an eFax-specific type, namely ".efx", one needs a viewing program to look at the file or export it to more conventional formats (like ".jpg" and ".tif"). Such a program can be downloaded for free for either Windows 98 and ME or Windows 2000 and XP.

We tested the service by sending a fax from the machine in the Genealogy Room of the Historic Courthouse in Buchanan. The received .efx file was a scant 12 kilobytes, and can be found here. It was exported as a .tif file to preserve image integrity, and then converted into .png format using another program. (Click on the thumbnail image immediately below to view this .png image full-scale in a pop-up window.)

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We used a non-exemplary now-dated version of an optical character recognition ("OCR") program to automatically convert the image in the received file to text. Despite the very clean fax image received, TextBridge Pro 8.0 was far from perfect in doing the job. It produced the raw .rtf file here. Of course, despite all the errors, such a transcription is still a great start on obtaining a perfect one, merely with the corrective eye and hand of a human being. The advantage of such a final transcript is that the text can be searched at super-high speeds by computer - as well as compacted into a very small space indeed (about 1 kilobyte). And it can be transmitted again to yet another party - at greatly enhanced speeds - over a telephone line no better than the one used to transmit the original fax.

The beauty of the fax machine is that it is now extremely cheap (starting under $50) and so has been widely deployed around the world, even in places too poor or otherwise challenged to make use of a personal computer and attached scanner. It is very simple to use, too. If you can slip a page into a slot and dial a telephone, you are qualified to use one. Together with something like the eFax service, the fax machine provides an easy way for those anxious about using computers to capture paper documents in digital form and enjoy the several profound advantages of that form. The Haralson County Historical Society hopes to exploit this methodology to capture more of its activity in digital form, so that publication can be made on the World Wide Web for ready global availability.

Of course, the fax machine is hardly ideal. It is limited in detail resolution compared to even the cheapest PC scanners and basically lacks the ability to capture grey scale and color. But for text documents it is a welcome ally in the road to digitization.

November 2006