By Leslie Walker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 1999; Page E01
Now comes the free-faxing frenzy.
Ever since Netscape Communications Corp. gave its browser away for free -- the fire that lighted up the World Wide Web for all to see -- freebies have fueled the medium. We've had free e-mail, free home pages and free instant messaging. Then free Internet access, followed by computer giveaways -- all in the never-ending race to attract mass audiences for advertisers.
Now a spate of companies are offering you a free personal telephone number to which anyone can send you a fax, which is sent as a file to any e-mail address you designate for display on a computer screen or printing. These firms hope to subsidize the free service with a mix of ads embedded in the faxes or with premium services for which they charge fees.
A publicly traded company called JetFax started the battle in February by changing its name to Efax.com and offering a free incoming-fax service. After a decade of making facsimile machines and other office equipment, such as combination scanners, fax machines and printers for Hewlett-Packard Co., the company decided its fortune really lay with Internet services.
Reflecting the current mania for Internet stocks, Efax.com's market valuation quadrupled almost immediately.
Once lighted, Internet freebie flames often spread rapidly via e-mail as users tell their friends. Efax.com made it easy by putting an automatic message function on its Web site to take care of that job. These messages function as a kind of "viral marketing," because people getting word of the fax number may come on board as subscribers themselves.
Within eight weeks of going free, Efax.com had signed up more than 300,000 subscribers.
That was more than 10 times as many as a company called Jfax.com had signed up for its modestly priced service during the past 2 1/2 years. This week Jfax.com went the no-charge route as well, announcing that it is scuttling fees for receiving faxes and will give away telephone numbers. It also filed plans for an initial public offering.
Efax.com's move sparked a spate of other imitators. Half a dozen Web sites now offer free faxing of some kind, including the easy-to-use Callwave.com. This week another established company, publicly traded SpectraFax Corp., announced that it had formed a subsidiary, Ifaxmail.com, to offer free inbound faxing.
Most of these services let you receive faxes at no cost but charge you to send a fax. Beyond that, there is endless variation among their business models. Jfax.com, for instance, runs no advertising, while Efax.com places small ads on the image of an envelope -- these pop up for six seconds before you see the fax.
Companies that don't run ads generally hope to entice you to pay for premium services that include "broadcasting" faxes to a long list of e-mail addresses, converting voice messages to e-mails that can be played back through your computer speakers, and having an electronic voice read your e-mail to you aloud over the telephone.
Ultimately, the success of any service depends on whether people like it. In Internet faxing, the players are still trying to figure out whether and how consumers want to mix and match various communication channels -- voice, e-mail, facsimile machines, computers and printers.
Do people really want to go to their e-mail boxes to get voice, text and fax messages?
Jfax.com thinks they do. The company sprang from the on-the-road frustrations of founder Jaye Muller, 26, a progressive solo rock musician who was touring Britain four years ago when the idea of an all-in-one in-basket hit him.
"We changed hotels nearly every day and it was hard to get faxes, but I had a laptop and it was easy to get e-mails. I thought, 'Why can't I get all my messages the same way?' I wound up writing a 40-page business plan on the tour."
Its new free service offers one telephone number to which people can route all their voice, e-mail and fax messages.
Efax.com President Rob Pollock thinks people crave simplicity. "There is a phenomenal appetite for this; e-mail is now part of us," he said.
The stakes are high because e-mail and fax are big business. The world has an estimated 100 million fax machines in use, which generate more than $90 billion a year in revenue for phone companies, or nearly one-third of corporate phone costs, according to analyst Peter Davidson. Moving to Internet fax services can lower those costs.
While fax use is growing at 20 percent a year, e-mail is growing even faster. America Online alone handles 56 million of the messages a day. Within three years, Davidson estimates, 12 percent of the world's faxes will be routed to e-mail baskets rather than facsimile machines.
Not every fax company is targeting consumers. Another industry veteran plans to announce a different Internet strategy today. Publicly traded FaxSav Inc. changed its name to NetMoves and is eyeing the corporate market for delivering documents over the Internet. NetMoves is developing software to help companies reduce paperwork costs through such means as e-mail confirmation of stock trades and certified e-mail versions of the direct-deposit payroll stubs that companies now mail to employees.
"There will be a big cost savings," says NetMoves chief executive Thomas Murawski, "because the price to mail something in an envelope averages about $1.50. That will come down to below 10 cents to the nickel range."
That does not mean a reduction in overall use of paper. One dirty little secret of the digital age is that electronic copies tend to generate more, not less, paper, because people -- especially older folks who grew up without computers -- crave the tangible expression of their ideas.
The free-fax companies likely will go down in Internet history as among a wave of innovators that tapped the medium's "viral" marketing power to spread a new service, only to be bought by the telecommunication and media giants that are building mass online audiences.
Just as America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft snapped up the leading e-mail, home-page and instant-messaging innovators, you can expect many of the free fax companies to be gobbled by the Net giants, too.
It's all part of media converging into one ubiquitous communications network.
Send e-mail to Leslie Walker at email@example.com.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company