New Tools Put Fax Back in the Limelight

While fax automation is essentially a niche market, it is not static. A new generation of tools are helping companies integrate fax-borne documents with business-line applications. Esker US, Inc. (Stillwater, Okla.) announced a software developer's kit for building fax technology directly into applications.

Esker's Alcom LanFax SDK enables application developers to add fax solutions into Visual Basic, C/C++ and Visual C++ applications, or scripting languages such as VB Script. The company calls the developer's kit "a point of integration for Alcom LanFax NT with other applications, to add automated fax routines to databases, transaction processing systems, document management, imaging and workflow applications," including those running on the AS/400.

In fact, the fax SDK further strengthens the company's foothold in the midrange market, according to Chris Norwood, worldwide fax marketing manager at Esker. "We allow Windows NT or AS/400 administrators with VB, C++, and soon Active X programming experience to customize or fax enable any applications they have running in their environment," he says. "Besides our existing mainframe and midrange customer base, we have several integrators that have created AS/400 fax automation solutions."

A number of fax vendors have built commercial languages with similar capabilities to the LanFax SDK, notes Mark Gilbert, research director for fax technologies at Gartner Group (Stamford, Conn.). "The most basic thing you can do with fax information is print to a fax server. But users might want other capabilities like adding a cover sheet, and getting that to the fax server. An SDK provides the developer with functionality to get this over to the server in the right format. When you want more than basic faxing from the desktop, such as application integration in your environment, that's when you go with a fax server with good integration features." Gilbert estimates that server-based fax automation can reduce the time it takes to process a fax from end-to-end by up to 70 percent.

However, the fax automation market is not huge, and those products available on the AS/400 are few. However, the technology is still very important to many organizations. "The fax server market currently has about 50 companies in it, mostly small ones," says Gilbert. "The companies that make $30 million in this market are generally big fish in a congested and fairly small pond. Most of the products [including LanFax] are NT-based. Some vendors have fax servers that run on the AS/400, but this is definitely a niche market." Gilbert estimates the AS/400-based fax automation market to be about five percent of the total fax server market.

International Data Corp. (IDC; Framingham, Mass.) has forecast that fax servers will be a $1.5 billion market in 1999, growing to more than $3.2 billion in 2001. The company predicts 1,645,000 fax server ports lines will ship in 2000, a compound growth rate of 51.2 percent.

While the market is small, fax automation is still valuable to many AS/400 end-users. Fax capability can be embedded into business line applications such as sales support, invoice and billing, technical support, financial reporting and field agent software programs--essentially anywhere that a page-based document may be helpful, even required, to conduct a transaction with business partners and customers.

Lotus has its own Fax For Domino network-based fax server, which enables Notes users to send and receive faxes directly from their Notes client, or send faxes directly from within any Microsoft Windows application. It includes features such as load balancing, scheduled transmissions, inbound routing, and print-to-fax. Fax for Domino uses the customer's current telephone system and Domino infrastructure to route inbound faxes.

Esker's Alcom LanFax SDK can still be used to embed these features into enterprise applications running on the AS/400. "We offer the ability to send faxes through the Domino Server using a Lotus Notes client," explains Esker's Norwood. "We have created a gateway with the LanFax SDK and the Lotus API. Lotus Notes users in this environment will be using the LanFax SDK transparently."

The AS/400's Dedicated Server for Domino, intended for use in environments where a company wants to facilitate sales force automation, human resources and help desks, may even drive demand for fax automation among AS/400 shops.

Esker also recently inked a deal with Citrix to provide its fax-client software to MetaFrame and WinFrame users. In its current line of fax connectivity products, Esker now also offers the FaxGate family of fax servers, which allows users to fax directly from an AS/400 or mainframe.