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Great Tool for Travelers:

Jfax Virtual Offices for $12.50 a Month

By Nick Anis and Craig Menefee

Anyone who travels knows the awful feeling of being out of touch. It’s not so bad if that’s what you want. Everyone needs to drop out from time to time, take a break, hang out the ol’ Gone Fishing sign. But if you’re not just opting out of the rat race for a few days, that feeling of being disconnected or having voice messages and faxes piling up is not fun.

People travel on business more than ever now. The computer mags like to call such travelers "road warriors," but if you’ve ever been one – gone somewhere to close a deal, finish an article, sign a contract, research a book – you’re probably neither impressed nor charmed by the term. You may be hot and weary. Frustrated, maybe. Jet-lagged and prone to waking up wondering where you are and why you ever took this damned assignment, maybe. But Conan the Road Warrior? Get serious.

Of all the hassles of travel, the worst may be that sense of disconnection. Have you ever been in a terminal, still waiting for a call-back from a critical contact at your destination city when you heard the gate agent’s voice call out for you to report to the counter or lose your confirmed seat? It can be a horrendously frustrating experience. Anyone who travels in the course of making a living or meeting a deadline can tell such stories.

That’s why we were excited when we heard about a new and finally "ready for prime time" service called JFax. There’s no way to control the heat and crowds and unpredictability of travel, but JFax has taken a huge step toward eliminating the mistakes and missteps that follow from not being in touch. They will serve as your central contact point for voice mail, email and faxes, serving them up to you in whatever email service you designate. And they have local numbers in 24 major metropolitan cities around the world. In effect, the service gives travelers – or anyone else, for that matter – the opportunity to have a "virtual office" just about anywhere in the world. All for $12.50 a month.

That’s less than many professionals spend on toner for their fax machines in a month.

Naturally, when we heard JFax had solved its initial bugs and was ready for serious users, we had to take a closer look. As frequent travelers, we’ve been waiting for something like this for years and were hardly likely to ignore it when it arrived – if it was what we hoped. That was a big if, given that many services have tried to do something similar, with 800 number voice mail messaging and the like. It just has never been done in a manner likely to be both reliable and useful to travelers. Maybe, we reasoned, this time someone got it right.

Someone did. What we found convinces us that anyone who travels for a living, and/or operates a home-based or small business, should take a closer look at the JFax service. It can save you serious Exedrin headaches.

How It Works

Here’s how JFax works. As a subscriber, you will get a true local telephone number in any of 24 major metropolitan cities around the world. There are no extra pin numbers or the like, as with so many 800-number voice mail services. Just a local phone number for which you pay a flat $12.50 monthly fee. Of course you can sign up for more than one, or for numbers in various different cities, if you need to. New cities are being added frequently, according to the company.

On each number, you create your own, custom outgoing messages for callers to hear, and you can receive unlimited voice mail and faxes at that number. While you can’t use the numbers to make what would amount to local phone calls from the remote "local numbers," it hardly matters. The point is that callers have a "real" number where they can leave messages or send faxes. All incoming calls are then converted to standardized fax or voice mail file formats and sent on to whatever email address you specify, for you to pick up at your convenience with a PC or Mac.

In effect, these phone numbers give you a virtual presence in the cities where they are located. If you want to be present, in a communications sense, in San Francisco, say, or New York, Beverly Hills or any of the other JFax cities, just sign up for a number there. Put it on your business cards, letterhead and World Wide Web page. People will be able to call you there and leave voice messages or send faxes.

When you pick up your email, voice mail recordings arrive as sound files that you hear through your computer’s speakers, much as you would listen to a tape recording. With faxes, you can view them directly on-screen or print them out like any other file. They emerge from a laser printer looking better than the old-style special paper roll faxes did, since they are equivalent to a plain-paper fax.

JFax is not just useful in North America, though at present that is where it has established most of its centers. The system also has centers in a variety of international cities. Major international metro areas include London, Paris, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. US cities with one or more area codes include New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Silicon Valley, and (in the US) toll-free 800 numbers. The 800 numbers entail an extra $.25 charge, however.

The increasingly international character of the JFax system gives those who do business across national borders as well as those who do transcontinental business in North America an excellent way to reduce otherwise expensive communication charges. After all, once a fax or a voice message is saved as a file, it becomes email, and email is effectively free. (See the sidebar for a discussion of email forwarding and other services that you can combine with JFax for expanded effectiveness.)

Given a JFax account, instead of going to the trouble and expense of retrieving voice mail by long distance from your hotel or having faxes forwarded to your hotel at up to $5 a page, you simply collect them together with your other messages, from whatever email service you use. You can check your email from anywhere in the world and listen to your voice mail messages for the cost of a local call. Using your laptop you can view, annotate and reply to faxes or forward them to others using JFax (for a nominal extra charge). Then you can listen to voice messages through your laptop’s speakers and, while you’re at it, process your other email. And you do it all in a single sitting, though the common JFax/email interface.

This system can be a huge boon to professional travelers.

Some Requirements

Okay…there is what some people might consider a catch. The JFax service does require that you have an email account somewhere and you do need a computer or notebook PC with which to log on and check your mail. But email has become such an established fact of business life these days that most people would hardly consider that a catch. Many people would not try to do business nowadays without the benefits of near-instantaneous communication by email anyway. In that sense, needing email is no more a catch than needing a first class postage stamp was in earlier days. It’s just a fact of life.

According to recent figures, more than 70 million people now use email. There are free email accounts like Juno for skinflints who won’t or can’t pony up the average cost of $20 or so a month that it costs for unlimited email and Internet access. Even if your only access to the World Wide Web is through, say, a computer at a public library, you can maintain internet-based email as your reception terminus for a remote JFax phone number.

For those who simply do not want email or do not want to take the time to learn how to use it, we can hold out some dim hope. Sometime in the next 25 years, someone may invent a time machine that will return them to those golden days when a 5-cent stamp would get one’s messages across town or across the country in a few days. Ben Franklin was justifiably proud of the postal service he set up, and it served the US well for 200 years or so. Earlier in this century, for those in a hurry, there was always expensive, operator-assisted long distance calling. With a time machine, you might manage to get back to those halcyon days. Personally, we prefer to get our mail right after someone sends it, and email is how you do that. We also prefer to know our messages are being delivered right after we hit the "send" button. There’s nothing like a hard deadline to make you appreciate the immediacy of email.

About the Company

JFax (reachable on the Web at http://www.JFax.com) was established in December 1995, the brainchild of a 24-year-old, highly successful German rap musician named Jaye Muller who got increasingly annoyed at the communication hassles hotels created for him when we was on the road. In creating JFax, he wanted to provide simplified, cost efficient, location-independent, worldwide communications at a reasonable cost. What that has to do with German rap music we’re not sure, but the connection with being on the road and out of touch will be clear to any traveler. Muller’s idea was a good one.

In an interview at Il Fornaio Italian Restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, Muller explained how his company’s proprietary technology renders fax machines, telephone answering machines, and other voicemail systems near obsolete – at least for those of the 70 million people with email addresses who need to receive their voice mail, email and faxes from any location. Muller, who studied technology in college before becoming a musician, clearly believes in the value of the service he has created. Long active in promoting human rights, he gives the impression he has always set out to achieve anything he felt was worth doing and has usually succeeded. The success of the JFax probably comes as no surprise to him.

Additional Details

Here are some additional details on how the system works. The $12.50 base monthly charge secures a personal telephone number in any of the system’s 24 currently active area codes (see list at end of article). These cover most major US and several international cities. The base charge covers all calls, no matter how many. JFax also offers 800 number access (again, these are "real" individual numbers without "pin numbers" required after dialing) for a base charge of $12.50 monthly, plus a surcharge of $.25 per message or fax page. JFax also will send out faxes for about $.05 per page, using their proprietary software. A nickel a page is almost negligible compared to a standard hotel faxing charge of $1-$5 a page.

The advantage of using JFax for sending faxes is that they will reach standard fax machines. If you would rather send faxes directly , you can export the proprietary JFX-format fax image into a standard TIF file, manipulate it or translate it to other formats with software of your own, and send it out as a fax using standard fax programs such as WinFax or even the Window95 "Inbox" utility. We prefer the convenience of direct JFax transmission, especially given how inexpensive it is to use the service.

Your Jfax subscriber phone number remains yours alone for as long as you keep the account. You can safely put it on business cards and stationery, list it in the yellow pages, include it in ads, and so forth. Having a single number for voice mail and faxes can simplify your business cards and stationery but if you want a "big company" image on a small office or home office budget, you could get two numbers, one for for faxes and the other for voice.

Many JFax customers do use the service to enhance the image of their home-based businesses. A small business with "virtual offices" in remote cities around the world can project a feeling of good, solid confidence. Since there are no associated staffing or facility costs, the enhancement is very affordable using JFax. Image may not be everything in business, but it does count for a lot after all.

Here’s an example. One of this article’s authors operates primarily from a small office in a suburb of Los Angles but has clients and professional contacts in a wide range of cities. Jet Fax now gives him "virtual offices" in New York, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Chicago, Atlanta, Paris and London. As his business grows, he expects so too will the number of his local JFax phone numbers. The $12.50 monthly charge for each number often pays for itself many times over in the course of a month.

But it is for travelers that JFax is most invaluable. With a notebook PC and an email account at MSN, Netcom, AOL, CompuServe, or any other online system with an international presence, you will be able to check email at any time of day from anyplace in the world where you can connect to the Internet. When satellite-based Personal Communications Service (PCS) gets established over the course of the coming year or two, you’ll be able to check for mail and messages from the peak of Mt. Everest or the deck of a lone-hand sailboat in the middle of an ocean, if that’s your style.

We’ll leave it to the philosophers to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing. For ourselves – speaking as people who travel a lot… we love it.

Nick Anis and Craig Menefee

Signing Up with JFax

To sign up or ask for more technical information, call 1-888-GET-JFAX. The service is compatible with most leading email programs including America Online and Eudora. It is best to use a MIME-compliant email program such as any more recent generation of Eudora, Netscape, MSIE, or the like, since the service sends its files out using the MIME protocol. However, it is not absolutely necessary. Most email services that do not yet offer MIME compliance will provide a small utility program to translate MIME coding into standard file formats if you ask for one.

JFax provides proprietary software to carry out the actual image viewing and voice mail translation to your computer’s speakers. The software is available for Apple Macintosh PCs as well as for Windows 95 and Windows 3.1 based machines. The fax sending software is not yet available for Macs but the Mac translation is under development and, according to a JFax spokesperson, should be available soon.

Here is a list of cities where JFax currently offers local phone numbers, but be aware that the list is constantly expanding:

Amsterdam

Atlanta

Beverly Hills 310

Boston 617, 508

Chicago 312, 773, 630, 708, 847

London

Los Angeles 213

Montreal 514

New York 212

Paris

San Francisco 415

Silicon Valley 408

Toll-Free 800

Toronto 416

Vancouver 206, 604


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Nick Anis is a food, wine, and travel and technology writer with over 24 books in print published by McGraw-Hill, Random House, Bantam, Ziff-Davis, Tab, and others. Nick's articles have appeared in The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, West Coast Media, The Family Publications Group, The Weekly News, and Travel-Watch.  His beats include food, travel, snow and waters sports, entertainment, family recreation, consumer electronics, home improvement, and automotive.  He is responsible for the Restaurant Row Ethnic Dining Guide, co-published by the Long Beach Press Telegram.  Nick is an accomplished downhill skier, PADI certified SCUBA diver, and when he's not sitting on his butt goofing off, enjoys a variety of active recreation including tennis, riding motorcycles, ATVs, wave runners, snow machines, horses, skeet and trap shooting he's also taken a stab at riding camels, donkeys, elephants, ostriches, lamas, dolphins, Reindeer, bulls, mechanical bulls, and buffalo.  Nick is a member (A Secretary/Treasurer) of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA), a member of the North American Snow Sports Journalist Association (NASJA), Computer Press Association, The Writer's Guild, and listed in Books in Print, Media Map, and Press Access.  You can reach Nick at Editor@Travel-Watch.com.

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