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Creating Our Communications Future

From 1958 to 1963, Arthur Radebaugh wrote and illustrated a syndicated Sunday comic entitled, Closer Than We Think, as detailed on Every week he stretched peoples' imaginations with colorful visions of an amazing future filled with flying cars, floating houses, household robots ready to do our bidding, and jet-pack wearing letter carriers.

While quite a few of his fantastic predictions have yet to become reality, several are now common place and ordinary -- albeit with a few modifications. Instead of "atomic knives," surgeons use lasers to perform Radebaugh's "bloodless surgery" and e-books and CDs populate his "electronic libraries."

As farfetched as some of his other closer-than-we-think predictions might have been, I give him credit for stretching the boundaries of our imaginations. Despite the shadow of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war, Americans as a whole were hopeful for the future and looked upon it longingly. This was the age of The Jetsons, Disneyland's Tomorrowland, and the possibility -- nay, the expectation -- of a world that was bright, shiny, clean, and fully automated.

Here we are nearly 60 years later, and while it cannot be denied that today's innovations have altered the way we work, play, and think, we seem to have lost our sense of wonder and awe. We can imagine today's devices evolving with each new iteration, but is that enough? Is it enough to know that iPhone 7, 8, and 9 are coming or should we be thinking about ditching handheld devices altogether and visualizing a world where we communicate with brain waves? Is it more important to create a new tablet or imagine how our retinas could be the screens for the next generation of applications?

In other words, what wildly imaginative creations are we still capable of in this era of digital electronics and wireless networks? Have we already invented all the big stuff and there is nothing left for us to do but tinker and modify?

In my mind, the golden age of creativity began in 1765 when James Watt (the namesake of the electrical watt) revolutionized the world with his steam engine and ended July 16, 1945 when the United States detonated the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. Within that time period, humanity witnessed the birth of radio, the internal combustion engine, television, antibiotics, the phonograph, the telephone, electric lights, the camera, radar, rocketry, the computer, zippers, and nylon. These inventions changed the way we do just about everything. Great distances became surmountable, communication became immediate, night became day, and our universe got much, much smaller. It's nearly impossible to imagine a day when one or more of the big inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries doesn't directly touch us.

So, what are the great inventions post 1945? I venture to say that outside of digital electronics and Velcro, nearly everything new has been a variation of something that came before it. We have cell phones, but they are simply the marriage of telephones and radio waves. We have personal computers, hybrid cars, space travel, nuclear power plants, video conferencing, and yoga pants, but aren't they merely evolutions of older, well-established ideas?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of interplanetary space travel, time machines, cities on the ocean floor, and flying cars. They were in the books I read and the Saturday matinee movies I watched. That was what all my friends dreamed about, too. We didn't want to grow up to be presidents or basketball players. We wanted to be astronauts and fly to Jupiter ... and beyond.

What do the kids of 2015 dream about -- the next release of The World of Warcraft?

I smile when I hear people getting all excited about "the cloud." It's not that I don't appreciate what it is and the power and flexibility the cloud brings to today's enterprise -- I do. The smile is due to the fact that I've seen this movie before. I began my life in computer technology way back in the middle 1970s when our cloud was an IBM 370 mainframe. I would sit at a green-screen terminal and execute programs on a machine miles away. In fact, in all the years I worked on mainframe computers, I can't recall ever seeing one in person.

Yes, SaaS is not an IBM 370 and the on and off-ramps to cloud computing are not dial-up ASCII terminals, but let's face it, the idea of pushing computing resources into a central location and making those resources available from practically anywhere is nothing new.

Allow me to smile that same smile for the new big thing in communications -- WebRTC. While I am excited about moving communications into an HTML-based platform for both mobile and fixed devices, this isn't as revolutionary as Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone. WebRTC takes an existing interface (the Web browser), an existing rendering protocol (HTML), an existing transport protocol (HTTP), and adds existing communications methods (voice, video, text). In essence, it's a shiny new paint job on the same old thing.

If you've been reading my articles over the past several years you know that I live and breathe SIP. However, there isn't a whole lot to get excited about over there, either. SIP is just like WebRTC. It takes existing protocols and bends them into a new shape. Calling something new and different doesn't make it so.

Where are the flying cars? Where is the floating house? Clearly, you won't find them here.

I have five patents to my name and work with people who can lay claim to their own sets of patent numbers and plaques on the wall. I won't deny that I am proud of the work I did to get them, but in the end, they are nothing more than words. They aren't lightbulbs or cars. They aren't rockets, telephones, or whoopee cushions. They are ideas that get applied through software that winds up as 1's and 0's inside a computer processor. You can't touch my patents. You can't climb in one and let it take you to the moon.

Perhaps that's the problem with today. As much as digital technology has changed so many aspects of modern life, it's shifted our attention away from the tangible to the virtual. We create something we can look at on an LCD screen and call it revolutionary. We use digital technology to enhance the best ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries, but what are we creating that is completely new and unique?

The car severed our dependence on the horse and buggy, but does the Google Chromebook do the same for the way we think? For all that it may have going for it, a Chromebook is just another tablet, which is just another computer, which is just another form of television, which was invented long before any of us were born.

So, what's the answer? How do we create a new golden age of creativity? Here are a few of my thoughts.

We all need to think bigger and bolder. We need to regain a sense of wonder and awe. Look up from your smart phone and let your mind soar. The future can be as amazing as you dream it to be. It's closer than we think.

Andrew Prokop writes about all things unified communications on his popular blog, SIP Adventures.

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