• The Mac Hardware Report: The End of the Fax Modem

    January 7th, 2006

    Do you send and receive faxes from your Mac? You’ll likely give this question two very different answers: Some of you do it all the time, even if the software is often a struggle. Others wouldn’t think of such thing. Besides, aren’t there multifunction printers that do everything?

    I only raise the subject because the modem is fast becoming optional on desktop Macs. In fact, it’s standard only on the very cheapest Mac mini and even that might change next week; that is, assuming those new Intel-based models truly appear. You want a modem for dial-up or faxing, you have to remember to buy the $49 Apple USB Modem with your new Mac. Of course, when the modem was nothing more than a tiny printed circuit board with a jack, it consumed a much smaller portion of the retail price of your computer. But Apple is sending you a message, one you may not quite grasp right away.

    You see, like the departure of floppy drives beginning with the release of the iMac in 1998, Apple has decided that the modem is ancient history. Just as you had to buy external floppy drives, the external modem is a legacy product that will soon disappear from your shopping lists. Sure, for the millions and millions of people who still get online via dial-up, this may not make a whole lot of sense, at least today. But Apple is betting that broadband will soon take over for everyone but low-income families or those living in remote rural areas that do not have access to a satellite connection.

    I think such expectations are a little optimistic, of course. But what do I know about such things?

    Regardless, having used broadband for years, I really won’t miss the modem. Besides, faxing via a personal computer always seems a little clumsy even when the software cooperates. It shouldn’t be, of course. What could be simpler than writing a document and, without printing it, clicking a few buttons to send it off as a fax? And you can receive faxes just as easily, again without having to print something unless you require a hard copy. Think of all the paper and ink you save from fax spam, those unsolicited promotions you get even when you take advantage of the “opt out” option to remove your phone number.

    But there are times when having everything inside your Mac isn’t so convenient. No, not because you are forced to leave the thing on all night. There is an option in the Energy Saver preference panel to have your Mac awaken when the modem rings, and that feature really does work most times. The problem is handling external documents, particularly those that require a signature, although you can do that electronically as well. Of course, there’s always a scanner, but then you are basically creating your own makeshift fax machine, using your Mac to handle the chores of sending the document that’s just been digitized.

    The other problem with faxing is that Apple’s own software is bare bones and often unreliable; so much so that it’s unsuitable for business use. Suddenly you are forced to consider a separate program, such as Smith Micro’s venerable FAXstf (also available in Pro and Server versions) or SmileOnMyMac’s pagesender. The latter is simply terrific for personal and small business uses, and costs just under $30, by the way. The former used to be bundled with new Macs, but that’s long ago and far away. Maybe Smith Micro wanted too much money per copy, or maybe Apple saw the handwriting on the wall.

    I just wonder how many of you ever use your modem anymore, whether for faxing, getting online, or both. The reason I ask is that, just before writing this column, I began to think about the last time I used a modem for anything, and it was a few weeks ago when I decided to use Tiger’s fax feature for a single page. I couldn’t get a stable connection, and so I used my HP multifunction printer instead. So much for convenience. Sure, I could get one of those standalone fax programs, but I wouldn’t use it often enough to matter. For the most part, email took over long ago.

    At the same time, I have a relative who, as of now, can’t get broadband at his apartment for some reason, even though it is located quite near the central business district in Phoenix. He sticks with dial-up for his infrequent online visits, but he’s also challenged by technology and his eyes glaze over when I attempt to inform him that he can also send and receive faxes from his iMac. He still struggles with his multifunction printer when the need arises.

    As I said, Apple sees the future far better than I do. It didn’t make modems external just to extract extra dollars from you. It is the beginning of a trend, and let me assure you that I won’t miss those little chirps and beeps that announce a modem connection.

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