Posey's Tips & Tricks

In IT, Everything Changes But Nothing Changes

It amazes Brien how much technology has improved over the decades, but he's still using the same video-capture technique he wrote about for Windows 95.

One thing that sometimes surprises me about working in IT is how, every once in a while, things come full circle. In those moments, I have often come to profound realizations of just how much has changed -- while, at the same time, nothing has changed.

Back in the late 1990s, I spent a couple of years working as editor-in-chief of a Cobb Group journal called Windows 95 Professional (it was my first writing gig). The Cobb Group encouraged its authors to include plenty of screen captures in their articles to illustrate key points. I realized early on, however, that there were some screens that simply could not be captured through conventional means. For example, you can't really take a screen capture of a computer's BIOS screen because the screen capture software relies on an operating system that is not running. Other examples of "impossible" screen captures might include the Blue Screen of Death or low-level PC boot errors.

I came up several creative ways to deal with these types of situations and eventually published an article called "Getting Impossible Screen Captures." Since the article was published in 1997, it isn't online anywhere and copyright issues prevent me from reposting it. At any rate, some of the techniques I wrote about involved writing programs whose output mimicked the screens that needed to be captured, or using a video-capture device that would allow one computer to capture what was displayed on another computer's screen.

I haven't thought about that article in many years. Recently, however, I was asked to update a Windows 10 video-based training course I created a few years back. As I began working on the course development logistics, I realized the screencast-recording techniques I had used to create the first version of the course simply weren't going to work. I needed to use a technique similar to what I had written about so long ago to capture a PC's video output on the machine that I use for recording videos.

Even though the basic technique I am using is strikingly similar to what I wrote about in my 1997 article, the technology has changed -- a lot. Back then, the video-capture device that I was using supported a maximum resolution of 640x480 (VGA) and connected to the PC by way of a long-extinct RS232 port. The video-capture device I am using for my current project captures multiple streams of 4K video and plugs into an internal PCIe slot.

Of course, the process of attaching additional hardware to a PC has also changed considerably. The article I mentioned earlier was for a journal called Windows 95 Professional. Windows 95 was groundbreaking in many ways, but one of the biggest things that was introduced in Windows 95 was something called plug-and-play. The idea behind plug-and-play was that when you install or attach new hardware, it should just work. Today, we take this for granted, but at the time, installing and connecting hardware was anything but easy.

Consider the video-capture card I installed this morning. I simply plugged it into a slot and loaded a driver. The whole thing took about five minutes. Back in the 1990s, however, expansion cards contained physical jumpers that were used to configure the card's IRQ (hardware interrupt number), DMA (direct memory address) and base memory. You had to make sure that the jumper settings that you chose did not conflict with any other devices that were installed in the system, and you also had to tell the device driver how the jumpers were set. Not only was it tough to avoid conflicts, there were a limited number of IRQs available and running out of IRQ numbers was sometimes a problem.

Attaching external devices to a PC was every bit as complicated, if not more so. Today, most external devices connect through a USB port, but it wasn't always that way. Prior to the USB (universal serial bus) PCs were equipped with nine pin serial ports. While there was nothing especially difficult about plugging in a serial device, making the device work was always challenging. To make a device work, you had to specify the port number, the number of data bits, the number of parity bits, the bit rate (data transfer speed) and sometimes more. Even if you got all of the settings right, there were some serial devices that simply would not coexist with other devices for no apparent reason.

Looking back, it just amazes me both how much technology has improved (especially regarding add-on hardware), but also how similar the video-capture technique I am using for an upcoming training course is to the technique I wrote about 24 years ago. It just goes to show how in IT, everything changes but nothing changes.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 20-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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