For the past 5 years I’ve been a devoted fan of the HylaFax system. HylaFax uses a computer’s fax/modem to send and receive faxes; it’s the UNIX equivalent of something like WinFax on a Windows machine, but far more powerful.
Here’s how I’ve put HylaFax to use:
The Enhanced Farm Weather Forecast Program faxes detailed local weather forecasts to farm clients across Prince Edward Island early every morning during the crop season. The program is now in its 6th year. The first year of operation, a Windows-based solution for faxing was developed in-house, and was extremely problematic. For the past five years, a Linux-based system we installed has used HylaFax, and has proved rock-solid. We send out about 15,000 faxes a year, and we’ve never had a problem.
From a technical perspective, here’s what happens: every morning Environment Canada emails 5 weather forecasts to the server, each in a separate email, with the forecast as a MIME attachment. The forecasts are parsed out of the email, and then each forecast is faxed out to a list of subscribers for that local area. We created a web-based system to allow the subscriber list to be managed, and the fax queue to be monitored.
At Yankee Publishing, we use HylaFax to fax out proofs and invoices from an internal web-based Classified Advertising system. When a new proof or invoice needs to be sent, the web system calls a HylaFax client running locally to talk to a HylaFax server on another system about 200 miles away which, in turns, sends out the fax. Again, this system has proved useful and reliable.
Finally, we use HylaFax internally to send and receive faxes for Reinvented Inc. When you fax something to (902) 892-1513, you’re actually talking to an old Motorola Voice/Fax modem in our basement which, in turn, hands off the fax to HylaFax. We then use a fax-to-email gateway to send a PDF of the fax to our corporate email address for viewing and, if required, printing. To send faxes (which we do only rarely), we print from whatever application to a PostScript file, transfer this file to the server, and use the HylaFax client to send manually (there are Windows-based clients that do this automatically through a Windows printer driver, but, so far, nothing analgous for Mac OS X).
Over three HylaFax installs, we’ve found that the single most important choice to make is the fax/modem to use. There’s a lot of information on the HylaFax website, including a voluminous mailing list that’s searcable, that can help with this selection; in all three cases we’ve set up, we’ve used very cheap, generic external fax/modems that have costs less than $75, and each has proved up to the task.
HylaFax is one of those nice pieces of software that, once you install it, just works, year after year, fax after fax.
OS X 10.3 (Panther) will have built-in faxing (any app that can print, will be able to fax, much as the “Save as PDF…” function works now).
I’ve been using a lower-tech approach for a few years now. It leverages a service called MaxEmail.
A friend and client has been building a local chain of delicatessens, and used something like WinFax to send out weekly specials to subscribers. As we all know, apps like this take over one’s system, are prone to crashes, and are time-consuming since they dial and send faxes individually, one after the other. Crash recovery presented more problems, because as much as the then current range of faxing apps claimed to keep track of what had been sent and what hadn’t, he could really be sure where to resume the broadcast after a system crash. (Mind you, this is an opt-in/out list, all local, no fax spam.)
Since he was also starting to include an email alternative to faxes, I built him a solution for both of these. MaxEmail costs $14.95 per year in the basic version. Faxes cost $.50US per 30 seconds of transmission time. To send a fax via MaxEmail one attaches the fax body to an email message in any number of formats (.pdf, .doc, .html, lots of others) and sends the message to email@example.com. MaxEmail automagically builds a TIFF from the attachment and faxes it out, retrying as necessary. It knows who to bill via the From: address. If we keep the fax bodies small, several hundred faxes each week cost him about ten bucks and he doesn’t have to screw with a faxmodem at all.
Natch this all works from the backend of his website, where there’s an interface for managing his subscriber list and initiating the broadcast. If the subscriber prefers email, a regular message is sent. For those preferring fax, a To: address is constructed from their fax number and a message with an appropriate attachment goes off to MaxEmail instead.
This also solved a time-of-day annoyance problem. Under the faxmodem approach, my friend would do his broadcasts overnight (since it took so long, and his PC was unusable until it was over). Subscribers receiving faxes at home didn’t appreciate the machine screeching in the middle of the night. With MaxEmail he can whack the send button at 9:00am Monday and the whole thing is done in about ten minutes. There are email confirmations upon successful transmission.
Lately I’m working on going in the other direction. The delis won’t have email access any time soon, but they each have fax machines. The idea is to send customer orders from a web form, which produces a neatly faxed order processing form in-store, including information about the customer’s location and delivery particulars. Part of the fax is torn off and stapled to the outbound order. Everything the delivery guy needs to know is on it.
The only wrinkle is that customers can’t assume their email-to-fax order has been received. To fix this, we’ll need to require an “account” of sorts, so that we have a voice number and name for making telephone confirmation or to clear up any questions, and to store the delivery particulars, etc.
This has worked very well, and we’ve plans to roll the whole thing out as a service for promoting just about anything. It’s only possible because of MaxEmail’s pricing, which is reasonable where eFax’s is certainly not.