Future Tense: The Year 2000 Problem on Your PC
By Rob Pegoraro
Yes, the "Year 2000 Problem" is coming, and it's causing thousands of computer programmers to scramble to fix systems whose use of two-digit year shortcuts could make them confuse Jan. 1, 2000 -- 01/01/00 -- with Jan. 1, 1900. But at home, it's not going to be a big deal.
Why? Basically, there isn't any really "mission-critical" stuff on home computers. We don't use our PCs to run nuclear power plants, we use them to run word processors and Web browsers. And so the worst-case "Y2K" consequences at home are annoying, not life-threatening.
For instance, Y2K bugs could rearrange your financial data -- but they can't void your checking account. E-mail you send could be overlooked by recipients when their e-mail programs sort your message by its circa-1900 date stamp -- but it will still be delivered. Virus scanners could get cranky at seeing their virus-profile data appear 100 years out of date -- but viruses won't necessarily swarm over your system as a result. It's not exactly cause for existential dread.
TESTING, TESTING ...
Your Y2Knowledge starts with looking at your computer. To be exact, is it a Macintosh or a DOS or Windows PC? Every Mac can handle dates through 2040; current versions of the Mac OS are good through the year 29,940. This means that most, but not all, Mac software is also safe -- since a properly written program will rely on the operating system to provide time and date data. (See our chart at right for a summary of popular programs' Y2K status.)
If you use a PC, by contrast, you face a greater risk. Microsoft's recent operating systems (version 5.0 and up of DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and Windows 98) are, by themselves, basically Y2K-ready -- but they all depend on a PC's hardware to track the date and time.
A PC, in turn, uses a "real-time clock" to keep precise time, which must then be interpreted by the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System, a small read-only memory chip) and handed off to the operating system. (Most real-time clocks are not Y2K-compliant, but that's all right, since no software ever touches their data directly.) The problem is that many BIOSes can't understand the century transition.
If you bought your PC after early 1997, its BIOS is probably bi-century capable; if not, odds are you'll have trouble. The way to know for sure is to download a Y2K testing program. Try 2000 Toolbox Hardware Check, put out by longtime utility developer McAfee and PC Magazine. You can download a free copy at http://hotfiles.zdnet. com/cgi-bin/texis/swlib/hotfiles/ info.html?fcode=000T8C . (Ignore its pointless alert about your PC's irrelevant real-time clock and focus on the overall verdict, which it will deliver at the end of its tests.) You can also pick up one of the year 2000 utilities you'll see at any computer store; any such program from a reputable manufacturer will do for basic testing.
DEALING WITH IT
If your BIOS is not up to task, you have three choices. You can "flash upgrade" it, which requires that you download a special program to reprogram it; look for it at your computer manufacturer's Web site. But many older BIOSes can't be fixed this way, and in any case this isn't a task for the faint of heart (the procedure risks permanent PC catatonia if something goes wrong when the BIOS is updated).
The second approach -- the one used by most Y2K repair tools -- is to install a small program that runs every time your computer boots up and forces the BIOS into the proper century. Again, your computer's manufacturer should have this available for download at its Web site. (If you bought your computer from a custom-build "screwdriver shop," call the store and ask if it provides such a utility to its customers. It should.)
The third option is selective apathy. Continue computing as before, but the first time you start up your machine in the year 2000 -- before you run any programs -- open the "Date/Time" control panel (in Windows 3.1, select "Control Panels" in the "Main" program group; in Windows 95, select "Control Panels" off the Start menu's "Settings" item). If your system flunked the century change, your system will say it's Jan. 1, 1980 (Microsoft operating systems assume the earliest possible date they could run is 1980). Reset that date to Jan. 1, 2000, then turn the machine off; wait a minute or two, then turn it on again and verify that the date change has taken hold.
In a tiny minority of cases, however, even that won't work; a few BIOSes simply won't recognize any century but the 20th. You might then have to replace hardware -- put in a new motherboard or just buy a new PC. Or perhaps it would make more sense to do nothing.
"You may decide, 'who cares what the clock says' if you don't do anything with the machine but play solitaire," says Chris Weiss, chief technologist of Greenwich Mean Time-UTA, an Arlington-based Y2K software firm. "Let's get real: Lots of PCs aren't used as anything but a video game controller."
Comments? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW POPULAR PROGRAMS DEAL WITH THE YEAR 2000
* Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11: Compliant, with minor issues; you'll need to download a new version of File Manager.
* Windows 95: Compliant, but the "Find Files and Folders" tool has some small problems.
* MS-DOS: Versions 5.0 and up are compliant, with minor display glitches.
* America Online: All versions are compliant.
* ClarisWorks: Versions 4.0 and up are compliant, but make certain assumptions about two-digit year shortcuts (for instance, until 2000, they'll assume 00 to 10 mean the years 2000-2010, while 11-99 are translated to 1911-1999).
* Eudora: All versions starting with Eudora Pro 2.0 and Eudora Light 1.5 are compliant.
* Microsoft Money: All versions are compliant.
* Microsoft Word: All versions starting with version 5.5 for DOS are compliant, but Word version 5.0 for DOS can exhibit a "serious file corruption problem." Newer versions can still be confused by improper use of two-digit year shortcuts.
* Microsoft Works: Compliant, but can be confused if users enter two-digit years; fixes for versions 4.0 and 4.5 for Windows are due by fall.
* Netscape Navigator/Communicator: All versions starting with Navigator 2.0 are compliant.
* Quicken: Versions 1 through 4 for DOS break after Dec. 31, 1999; an Intuit spokesman said he "wouldn't necessarily count on" updates. Versions 1 through 5 for Windows work, but you must designate post-2000 dates with a bizarre syntax: 01/01'00 instead of 01/01/00. Versions 1 through 4 for the Mac are still being tested. Quicken 5 for the Mac and Quicken 6 and 98 for Windows and Mac work, except for some online banking components. Intuit promises free updates to those modules by the second quarter of 1999. Quicken 99 is compliant.
* WordPerfect: Versions 6.0 and up for Windows are compliant; version 5.2 for Windows and versions 5.1, 6.0 and 6.1 for DOS are due to be tested by year's end.
Don't see your program here? Contact the manufacturer. Bear in mind that many programs -- for instance, games, photo-editing software and Internet utilities -- have no date-based functions at all.
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