Real-time, point-to-point faxing, far from following the dinosaurs to extinction, can make a life-and-death difference in health care.

How important is reliable fax software? Ask a physician. Until a few weeks ago, I felt certain that desktop fax capability was going the way of the dinosaurs. Corporations that depend on faxes for contracts, orders, and other documents typically use servers to optimize transmissions, keep detailed records for charging each department for faxes, and route incoming faxes correctly. A buyer's guide can help you review and select appropriate fax software.

Standalone users no longer must wrestle with fax modem configurations and fax software with too many features or unreliable connections. Instead, they can use Internet fax services, such as Faxaway, to automatically render document attachments as faxes without special software on the sender's computer. Several free services, such as eFax.com, j2.com, and OneBox.com, receive faxes and relay them to your email address. They also send faxes for a fee. So why bother with desktop faxing?

A cardiologist friend related this incident: He needed to receive an electrocardiogram via fax from the emergency helicopter that was transporting his patient to a hospital. His reading of the EKG would determine the patient's care.

The doctor was running Outlook 2000 configured for home use with Internet Mail Only mode and the Symantec WinFax Starter Edition fax component. When WinFax SE failed several attempts to receive the fax, the cardiologist fired up the fax service in Windows 2000 Professional. He got the fax and rushed off to the hospital, muttering that performing the patient's emergency heart catheterization would be easier than receiving the fax had been.

This life-or-death fax was transmitted directly from the person who had the information to the person who needed it. We think of email as being direct and instantaneous, but it's not. Each message reaches its destination by passing through an unknown number of servers; many factors along its route can delay the email. When you need a document right now, point-to-point fax (assuming the fax modem and software on both ends are working fine) has no substitute.

Microsoft's message on the importance of faxing is mixed. Redmond apparently recognizes that many small businesses need help with faxing, because the new Microsoft Small Business Server 2000 (SBS 2000) released last week includes the Microsoft Shared Fax Service, as did SBS 4.0 and 4.5. Yet at last year's Microsoft Exchange Conference, presenters stated that Outlook 2002 won't include a fax component, such as WinFax SE. According to Microsoft Office product manager Lisa Gurry, "Office XP will support the faxing functionality that ships in Windows 2000 and Windows XP. There are also a variety of great Internet-based faxing services which Office XP also supports."

My doctor friend's story not only changed my mind about the need for real-time faxing, but it reminded me how important reliability is to any fax service. I've been using various Internet fax services for several years, free from worry about whether my fax modem connects properly.

Even for industrial-strength fax solutions that Internet services might not provide, set your benchmarks for reliability. You may not need to receive an emergency EKG, but contracts and orders are essential to your business. Evaluate both the fax software and the fax modem to ensure that you're getting the highest level of reliability.