Computers: Figuring out the fax on exchanging data: Harry Davidson finds that a minor adjustment to electronic communication standards is the talk of telecottage land

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HERE in telecottage land we are eyeing the box of overpriced thermal fax paper lurking in the corner and imagining the day, not so far away, when it goes up on the village bonfire.

All because the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has made what appears to be a minor adjustment to its standards for electronic communication. This may not set Cheapside alight, but here in telecottage land we speak of nothing else.

Now you are probably sitting there thinking if there is one piece of technology I will never give up it is the fax machine. But you are wrong. The ITU, formerly the Comite Consultatif International Telegraphique et Telephonique (CCITT), is out to get you and so is Microsoft, the world's largest computer software company. Believe me, there is no hiding place.

Facsimile transmission is a dreadful technology which has but one thing going for it: you can use it almost anywhere. Way back in the 1980s, when people were first starting to realise that it might be nice to send text and graphics to each other over telephone lines, personal computer manufacturers came up with the modem - a device that sits translating between the computer and telephone network - to do the job.

Being computer people they had to get together and agree easy ways in which modems could get along together. This they did, with a vengeance. There are scores of easy ways in which personal computers can communicate, so many that you actually need to know which before you start.

While the modem people sat around tables trying to work out why all the other guys could not just do things their way, the Japanese started turning out fax machines. Now these were basically tacky thermal printers with a slightly intelligent modem on board.

The bright idea was that these modems really only had one or two ways of talking to each other. All you had to do was stick a piece of paper in at one end and, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it popped out at the other. To do this sort of thing with a computer you had to deal with such lovely concepts as Xmodem file protocols, data bits, parity and half duplex mode - and then throw in several Hail Marys. Fax was easy and so it flourished.

All this would be marvellous if what we got at the other end was any use. The trouble is, increasingly it simply is not. Fax machines are stupendously dumb. What they transmit is a simple picture of the piece of paper you feed into them, broken down into lots of dots. What you get at the other end is a copy of that picture.

There may be words and pictures on it, but if you want to do anything with them - such as edit them on a computer - you are going to have to retype the lot. Or try to convert them into text using an optical character recognition program which will attempt to decipher printed text, usually with an accuracy of about 90 per cent. So at least one word in ten will be wrang.

Computers are now so ubiquitous that we are fast approaching the ultimate fax lunacy. We sit at computers and type words which are then printed out, fed through a fax, turned into pictures, despatched over telephone lines, turned back into pictures, then typed back into a computer and probably edited using precisely the same word processing package which created them in the first place.

Each fax page takes about a minute to transmit; as straight, uncompressed text data it would take about 15 seconds. Yet still, years since the nonsense began, you need to wade through the mire of jargon to transmit data directly from one modem to another.

This is where the ITU and a growing gaggle of software manufacturers come in. The T434 protocol is something built into the fax standards that make up what we now call a Class 1 fax modem - the sort most of us now buy. This is a data modem that is fitted in or attached to your computer which can pretend it is a fax machine. You can send and receive faxes straight from your screen, without having to print them out.

More importantly, hidden deep within the modem is T434, a sneaky little facility to do something else, namely decide whether to send the data as a fax or as a computer file. What you have, then, is the easy set up and connection facilities of a fax, but the ability to send real, usable data files. Programs that take advantage of this facility are only just coming on to the market, but if you regularly send faxes to other computer users you would do well to seek them out.

Microsoft's Windows for Workgroups 3.11 - a version of the Windows operating system which allows several users to link themselves together and share programs and files - has a fax and data capability built into it. So does the new version of Delrina's WinFax Pro 4, one of the leading communications programs that control the transmission and receipt of data and faxes.

Windows for Workgroups - it is available for use on a single machine - uses something called 'Microsoft at Work' technology to let you send messages or files as either faxes, data or electronic mail (E-mail).

FaxPro 4 can do the same thing using a number of different fax and data standards, including At Work, a thing called CAS, used on Intel modems, and a facility which only works with other WinFax Pro 4 users and which proved to be the best of the lot.

What these new products mean is, potentially, rather exciting. On your computer you create an address book for your contacts, noting their fax numbers and E-mail addresses and set your preferences for communicating with them. The computer will then transmit the same file in the smartest way possible, faxing it to some people, sending it as data to others, and despatching E-mail to the rest. Crucially, you do not need to know what is happening, or have to set up any particularly fancy communications routines to get the stuff over the wires.

We have spent the best part of a decade sending dumb pictures to each other. Finally, on the back of one dreadful, if ubiquitous, idea, we seem to be stumbling forward to some kind of genuine electronic village, where what we exchange is the usable digital data - and that means text, graphics, sound and video - instead of some static, inferior copy of the original.

The strange thing is we will still, doubtless, call it by its old name. Fax me that movie?

Windows for Workgroups 3.11

System: PC-compatible. Publisher: Microsoft.

Street price: New: pounds 95 (inc VAT). Upgrade from Windows 3.1: pounds 60.

WinFax Pro 4

System: PC-compatible. Publisher: Delrina; 081 207 3163.

Street price: pounds 115 (inc VAT).

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