IMAGE: ITU Pictures (CC BY)

Fax for the memories, or how to retire obsolete technologies

The UK’s health minister, Matt Hancock, has banned the National Health Service from replacing aging fax machines with new ones, correctly describing the technology as obsolete and ready to be replaced by email.

The decision brings to mind the retirement processes of other obsolete technologies in organizations where I have worked, prompting me to ask how efficiently this has been done. Most companies stopped buying typewriters back in the 1990s, but in many cases, a few were kept on because there were still some people who did not know how to generate labels in a word processing program and who found it easier to type out the address onto an envelope directly. Many years later, typewriters were still to be found in some departments, simply because the replacement process had not been carried out properly.

Many companies still consider the fax important to their businesses, either because their suppliers and customers still use them, or because a document that is signed and sent via fax is considered to be legally valid, a process that is still relatively by email. But the fax is analog, and as such, it can be difficult to verify that somebody has received a document, as well as raising confidentiality issues, particularly regarding people’s health.

How should a technological transition process like this be carried out? A ban on new machines means those that break down will not be replaced, presuming that these machines will not be repaired, which means increased maintenance costs, or that they’re not used much beyond their reasonable useful life, which could create “technology islands” in organizations, perhaps becoming a security risk, as well as projecting an antiquated image to the outside world. In which case, rather than a ban on buying new machines, it would make more sense to simply ban their use, accompanied by measures for their replacement, which would involve redesigning processes and introducing alternatives, or having a single centralized and controlled alternative for exceptional cases where, for whatever reason, it’s not possible to use another technology.

In the case of businesses that still use outdated technology like faxes for the reasons mentioned above, it can be hard to impose a replacement process, especially if it’s going to have a short-term financial impact. Nevertheless, the issue has to be approached pragmatically. Notifying customers and suppliers, offering them alternative communication channels and providing help with the transition easier can be carried out when the negotiating position favors it, but is harder when it comes to SMEs or companies without the ability to get suppliers or customers to change their procedures. In such cases, keeping obsolete procedures may be necessary until an alternative is available, although it may be advisable to make it clear this is something exceptional, set time frames and force the organization to adopt technologies more in line with the times.

Does your organization still use fax machines? If so, are they planning to replace them? What other technologies are still in use today, despite being obsolete?

(En español, aquí)