Switched On: Giving fax the axe

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Today's smartphones handle voice conversations, short texts, email, instant messages, and tweets from around the globe. They are moving toward real-time translation of languages -- and if the batteries malfunction, they can even send smoke signals. But if there is one staple of communication that has seemed immune from "app-ification," it is the fax machine. This dial-up dinosaur has proven so resilient that it seems certain that the mutant cockroaches surviving humanity may find some use for 14,400 bits per second document transmissions. However, a recently launched $3 app for the iPhone may be the harbinger of the demise of the fax, or at least for one of its most common rationales.

One reason faxes endure is because of the mainstream failure of digital signatures; we still rely on squiggly lines to bind our commitments. It's long been possible to use something like a Wacom tablet to capture one's signature, or even to use a scanner to capture it, but overlaying the image onto a form can be cumbersome, as well as impractical when you are away from your PC. For those on-the-go scenarios, there are fax apps available for smartphones, but they often are little more than a gateway to subscription-based electronic fax services (although one for the iPhone, Fax Print Share, lets you buy credits for faxing documents of various lengths to various countries). Services such as eFax are a poor fit for the person who just need to send an occasional facsimile -- or more likely send back a fax, oftentimes one that requires a signature.

Here comes Zosh to the rescue. After signing up for an account, you can forward e-mails that include a PDF to your Zosh account. From there, the Zosh app lets you fill in the forms by using the iPhone keyboard to enter small bits of information. It also includes a novel signature entry mode that lets you create your John Hancock by using your finger as the field scrolls sideways. With practice, this enabled me to create an approximation of my signature -- although I suspect it would work better with a stylus capable of working on capacitive screens. Zosh lets you resize typed information or signatures so that they fit the original underlining of the form. Once the form is complete, you can e-mail it back out to the sending party, providing the sender with your ecologically conscientious acquiescence.

Today, you can add fields and signatures to a PDF -- but given that Microsoft Word is probably the only other format commonly used for forms, it would be great if Zosh could convert those during the e-mail process. Additionally, while it is great to be able to e-mail the completed form back, it would also be useful to have the option to fax it on-the-go as with Fax Print Share, for those occasions where you may not have the recipient's e-mail address. Zosh is the kind of innovative app that uses modern handset capabilities to address a real mobile need, but there's room for improvement. However, if you're the sort that's going to print the form anyway, you may as well just fill it out on paper.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.