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Are the Fax Machine’s Days Numbered?

We hope that’s the idea behind Adobe’s recent acquisition of EchoSign, the electronic-signature startup.
July 27, 2011

How many times have you encountered this situation? You have engaged in a lengthy conversation or negotiation with a potential employer or partner, a conversation that spanned multiple devices (smartphone, tablet, laptop), a conversation that was decidedly modern, digital, virtual – a conversation that was, in a word, paperless. And then, all of a sudden, to solidify the deal you’ve hammered out, your interlocutor asks you to “simply print, sign, and fax the attached form.” Print? Sign? Fax? What is this, 1998?

On Monday, Adobe Systems – frequent accomplices in this faxing frustration, since the form in question is so frequently a PDF opened in your Acrobat Reader – shined a light ahead towards the day when we can finally retire that barbaric, outmoded technology, the fax. On Monday, it announced that it had acquired EchoSign, “a leading Web-based provider of electronic signatures and signature automation.” Adobe explained that it had plans to fold in EchoSign with various Adobe services, and in so doing, saving time and money for businesses, enabling them to “significantly accelerate sales cycles.” As well as finally feel that modernity had at last arrived.

EchoSign’s own website has an interesting mini-history of the idea of electronic signatures – a longer history than you might think. The earliest days of the telegraph brought electronic “signatures” of sorts. In 2000, in a sign of the times, President Clinton signed the E-SIGN Act into law (the old-fashioned way, with a pen). Since then, e-signatures have held the same legal weight as handwritten ones. And even though e-signatures are much more common now – acording to EchoSign, you’ve used one yourself if you’ve signed up for a brokerage account with Scwab, eTrade, or Vanguard – we’re still not in an era where they’re absolutely ubiquitous. By making it easier for small businesses to implement on-demand, web-based e-signing, EchoSign wants to change that. Its customers seem to be very much on board – one says EchoSign “saved his sanity” – and Adobe just gave it a major vote of confidence.

There’s one thing that might (briefly) give us pause about the rise of the electronic John Hancock. There is a tendency for that which is digital to be treated more cursorily than that which is physical. Does anyone read through those interminable user agreements that iTunes keeps foisting on us? Certain life-altering contracts, though, deserve to be treated with the utmost care and caution, no matter the medium. (For just one cautionary example, read about the Skype employees who made wrong assumptions about their contract structures, costing them a fortune.) When e-signatures become the norm, will there be more cases of hurried or absent-minded contract-signing?

That may be the case, but technology can’t be to blame here. If anything, on top of saving money, time, and trees, maybe Adobe’s acquisition of EchoSign will help bring us into a closer and more careful relationship with the pixelated word, a relationship more like the one we’ve long enjoyed with the printed one.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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