Get With the Program
By Sandra Evans
Let others worry about Armageddon. Regular people have to worry about their VCRs and coffee makers.
As the new millennium looms only a bit more than a year away, computer experts are scrambling to fix the "Year 2000" problem that is threatening to unleash havoc on systems around the globe run by computers -- everything from transportation to utilities to banks. Those with two-digit year markers that cannot read "00" as anything but turning back time to 1900 might just go kaplooie.
Which got the folks over at the Federal Trade Commission to wonder, on behalf of the average consumer, what will happen to all those little things around the house that have timers of some sort in them. Obviously, there's the personal computer to worry about, but just look around and see how many other life-enhancing electronic products could also be suspect.
Will the microwave with its little clock work? How about camcorders and thermostats? Will home security systems stop securing the home? Will people who couldn't learn to program their VCR for regular stuff in the first place have to figure out how to program in a crucial readjustment?
In May, the agency sought answers to those questions and challenged manufacturers to describe what they are doing about Year 2000 problems. The answer by makers of consumer electronics was soothing.
"Essentially all consumer electronics products currently being sold, and a vast majority of consumer electronics products sold in the past, will not experience Y2K (Year 2000) problems," assured the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.
The main problem among their products will be in "a limited number of older models of video and personal computer products," CEMA said. It said software is available to fix the problem in older personal computers. Some older camcorders and VCRs may require manual resetting. Other camcorders can't have their dates after Dec. 31, 1999, set properly but will otherwise operate just fine, the group said.
But just how old "older" is is unclear. It varies by make and model, and the only way to be sure -- even about products still on store shelves -- is to ask the manufacturer, said CEMA spokeswoman Ann Saybolt.
Some experts in the field also have concluded that the Year 2000 problem inside your home will be at most a series of minor annoyances. Yes, the clock on the VCR may have to be manually reset, if you actually keep an old model through the Year 2000, but "that's not going to be 'mission critical' around the house," said Russ Kelly, a Year 2000 consultant who has worked with computer software and mainframes for more than three decades. Kelly runs a Web site on the problem (www.russkelly.com) and hosts a weekly radio show in South Carolina called "The Year 2000 and You."
"Most of these things are just going to be an aggravation," said Kelly in a phone interview.
Devices such as coffeemakers and microwaves generally care about the time and sometimes the day of the week, but not the date, and so will have no problem, he said. Some VCRs, camcorders and fax machines will start carrying a wrong date, but will continue to do their primary jobs.
The only major issues will be in personal computers, security systems and some medical monitoring devices, he said. Some thermostats could be a problem, either requiring a simple fix or a replacement, he added, and some automatic sprinkler systems may start acting a little crazy with the date change.
In each of these cases, Kelly and others said, the best route for consumers concerned about a product is to go to the manufacturer with specific model numbers to see if they will work correctly. He suggests checking up early on anything that would be critical to lose, such as home medical equipment and security systems.
With the rest of it, why not just wait and see, he suggests.
"The key thing is to make sure you're ready for the aggravations when the Year 2000 arrives," he said. In case the larger issues of utility companies, banks and other institutions aren't perfectly solved, Kelly tells people not to plan to fly anywhere or have elective surgery just after New Year's Day 2000. Before the day gets too close, get some cash in hand and stock up on batteries and firewood in case of outages, he adds.
Kelly's first piece of advice on home PCs is what not to do: Don't change the date to Dec. 31, 1999, and see what happens when it turns. If there's a real problem, this trick could wipe out lots of stuff and you could lose it forever. Instead, contact PC manufacturers and find out if there is a problem and, if so, what to do about it. Most PCs only started becoming fully compliant within the last year, he said, but many of the models in people's homes can be easily fixed. Many manufacturers have started posting software corrections on the Internet. Another source, said Kelly, is a Web site (www.righTime.com) that shows consumers how to test their PCs for Year 2000 compliance and provides a software fix for some.
Bob Cohen, vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, advised that people who use their PCs for banking or stock transactions need to remember that these functions rely on software that is date-sensitive. People should contact the software manufacturers as well as their banks sooner rather than later to see what they need to do to make sure these systems work after Dec. 31, 1999, he said.
"It makes sense to keep paper records for stock transactions and banking," Cohen added. In general, he said, consumers should make sure when they buy a product that the manufacturer says it is Y2K-compliant or under warranty beyond Jan. 1, 2000.
But some manufacturers and retailers are worried first that someone might hold them responsible if products fail. The National Retail Federation told the FTC that "retailers currently do not make any claims as to which products will work properly." Retailers have no way of knowing which ones will keep going and which will have problems, the group said, pointing to the manufacturers as the ones with that information. The retailers urged the FTC and manufacturers to develop a Year 2000 compliance test for products and to compile product testing results.
In its submission to the FTC, the National Association of Manufacturers did not answer any of the agency's questions about which products might have problems. NAM's "interest is at this moment focused . . . almost exclusively on a single but tremendously important aspect of the commission's inquiry: the question of legal liability," wrote NAM President Jerry J. Jasinowski. The group's Year 2000 working group "has as its single uniting issue a shared concern regarding the potential which the Year 2000 poses for a flood of opportunistic and possibly unjustified litigation directed at the business community."
The manufacturers' concerns about legal liability may be addressed soon. In July, President Clinton urged legislation to shield companies from liability if they provide information on problems with their products and how to fix them.
Some companies have already started to give out Year 2000 information to the public. At Panasonic's Web site (www.panasonic.com), consumers can scroll through a list of models of camcorders, fax machines, TVs, VCRs, microwave ovens and other products to see if they are Y2K-compliant. Most on the list are, though it notes a couple of camcorders and fax machines where the company says the date will be incorrect but the machines will still work fine. Consumers with models not on the list can e-mail the company for information via its Web site.
Honeywell's Web site (www.honeywell.com) assures consumers that all of its products -- which include programmable thermostats and humidistats, home security systems and lighting controls -- are Y2K compliant.
The Consumer Electronic Manufacturers Association has started compiling a list of its members' Year 2000 sites and linked them to CEMA's Web site (www.cemacity.org/govt/ CEMA2000.htm). In mid-July, 13 companies were linked up and more were being added as they became available. "It's not exhaustive, but it's a start," said CEMA spokeswoman Saybolt.
In the meantime, those consumers who are aware of potential problems may still feel at sea. "It could be one of those fundamental events in human history that affects the way we live," said Phillip R. Hurwitz, a 39-year-old lawyer in Rochester, N.Y. "Or, it could be a tempest in a teapot."
Hurwitz became aware of the Y2K issue last year some time and submitted a short statement to the FTC saying that he would like to know more about the problem as a consumer because it's unclear how average citizens will be affected.
Hurwitz already has started checking around about critical issues with his credit union, his wife's payroll company, his PC manufacturer and the utility companies that serve his home. He's fixed his PC, been reassured by his credit union and phone company, and hasn't heard back from the others. If the VCR ends up with a wrong date, that's not going to bother him.
"My attitude is that anything that could go wrong, might go wrong, but I'm not going to worry about it," he said in a phone interview. "I'm sure it will be an annoyance, but it's not keeping me awake at night."
Sandra Evans is a contributing writer for the Home section.
WHAT WILL BUG YOU AT THE MILLENNIUM?
Things around the house that might have glitches:
Home medical monitoring equipment
Things that probably won't be affected:
Any appliance that relies on the time and day of the week, but not the date.
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