Bug Talk on the Block
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 1999; Page H1
Kate Schlabach has no army of software engineers, no multimillion-dollar budget to wield as she expels the millennium computer bug from her corner of the U.S. economy, a toy and children's clothing store that she owns in Old Town Alexandria. She's got her own sweat, cash she's taking from an employee bonus fund and a consultant whom she's trusting deeply.
First there were long meetings with the consultant, followed by nights poring over literature from software makers. Next came a lengthy demonstration of a new accounting package. Over coming weeks, she'll spend all her spare time preparing for the July day when her current computer system is ripped out and a new one installed.
In dollars and manpower, the campaign at her store against the "Y2K" glitch pales in comparison with the almost martial mobilizations underway at large corporations and government agencies. But for her, the effort has greater personal impact. If she can't vanquish the bug, the business she built and loves could fold.
The stakes are the same all across small-business America. But many small companies have lagged behind the Fortune 500 world in confronting the bug, which if not fixed could make computers shut down on Jan. 1. Some even have adopted a wait-and-see approach, opting to repair systems after they fail--a move that has worried both technology specialists and political leaders.
Other operations, such as Schlabach's store, called Why Not?, have moved aggressively in addressing the problem. And yet others are sitting pretty, either because they have new computers--or none at all.
On Schlabach's quaint block of King Street, bordered by Lee and Fairfax streets, just a few hundred yards west of the Potomac, you can find takers for each of those approaches.
Just up the brick sidewalk, Michele Marceau, the owner of the Principle Gallery, has had to replace one of her two PCs and purchase new accounting software. Across the tree-lined street the Winterthur Museum Store is planning to install new computers this summer after discovering that the existing machines will crash in the new year.
But next door to the Winterthur store, Kester Omijie's making no repairs as yet--he plans to wait and see whether he has problems in the computers he uses to manage his gift shops. Two doors up at a Scottish memorabilia and tobacco store, owner Susan Geller is taking the same tack. "We're just assuming things are going to be fine," she said. And if they're not? "We'll just use paper and a calculator."
And at the 50-year-old Market Square store, a place filled with candles, pillows, mirrors and fabric rolls, the two women working inside haven't a Y2K care in the world. The only device with a microchip in the store is a calculator, which seems quite capable of adding numbers in the new millennium.
"We have nothing to worry about," said Linda Dolkos, who used to work as an electronic-mail administrator for a computer firm in Northern Virginia. "I'm delighted I don't have to concern myself with this."
A Need for PCs?
Ask Schlabach about these neighbors at Market Square and she bristles with envy. "I'd be in their position too if I hadn't gotten these computers," she said, walking though her two-floor store, which is packed with toys, books and clothes. But then she stops and points to a selection of yo-yos and small, brightly colored plastic animals. "I guess," she said, "it would be tough to keep track of all this stuff without them."
Indeed, Schlabach said, that's what motivated her to computerize in the first place. The store has nearly 10,000 different kinds of toys, books and clothing. The computer system tells her when it's time to reorder an item. It also processes the store's payroll and tells her how much she owes her suppliers each month.
Schlabach first found out about her Y2K woes from Gregory Hill, a computer consultant who works with the store. Hill knew that the store's PCs, which were equipped with dated Intel Corp. 486 microprocessors and an old version of a Novell Inc. operating system, would not be year 2000 compliant. That in itself wasn't a big problem, Hill initially reasoned, because he could always install a new operating system and make adjustments to the clocks inside the PCs.
But then came the question of the store's accounting software. Would it work in 2000?
Hill thought of turning the clock forward to January, but he decided against that approach, lest he crash the machine. "You never want to mess with live data," he said. "You could create just the problem you're trying to avoid." So he contacted the company that makes the software, Armor Systems Inc. The response wasn't encouraging. Not only would the store need to upgrade to a new version, but that edition would require more powerful computers.
"There wasn't much of a choice," he said.
Schlabach has asked Hill to install the new machines--four at the sales counters and one in the back office--over the summer so there will be several months to test for glitches.
The new system will allow her to add software to access the Internet and publish store newsletters, but she's not availing herself of those options right now. "We can only afford the bare-bones package right now," she said. "As it is, this is costing way too much."
At times, she wonders whether the upgrade is really necessary. "What," she asks, "do I care if the computer thinks it's 1900?" Then she pauses. "Will it shut out all of our records? That would be bad."
'The Latest Stuff'
A few doors down King, Marceau, the art gallery owner, went through a similar evaluation process earlier this year. Knowing that she had an older computer and wasn't using the latest version of her accounting software, she decided on both a hardware and software upgrade.
Y2K, Marceau said, "was in the back of my mind. I knew I'd be safer if I had all the latest stuff."
She didn't stop there, though. After sitting down and "thinking about all the ways" she could be affected, she performed a few other Y2K checks--ones that experts strongly recommend. She talked to her bank to get the requisite reassurances from them. And she called the firm that handles her credit card transactions to ensure that the card-processing terminal in her gallery--as well as the firm's data network--would be ready to go.
"I don't know what's going to happen when the clock turns, but I want to be ready," Marceau said.
The Historic Alexandria Visitor's Center, which is also located on the 200 block of King Street, is taking a similarly approach. The center, which is operated by a private organization, had a computer consultant test and make minor repairs to some of the older machines in the offices this spring. The center also plans on testing its telephone system this summer.
Across the street, the Warehouse Bar and Grill recently asked its computer technicians if the restaurant's touch-screen order-processing terminals are Y2K compliant. "They told us it will work just fine," said Harish Malhotra, Warehouse's manager.
Those are questions that some on the block haven't gotten around to asking yet. At the Two Nineteen Restaurant, which also uses touch-screen terminals and has a PC in the back office to track inventory and manage banquet menus, nobody has yet run any tests, said manager Brooke Budreau.
"We've been pretty lackadaisical about it," she acknowledged. But she said the restaurant, which serves New Orleans-style food, does plan to analyze its systems before the new year. Budreau, who called herself "very computer-illiterate," said she plans to ask her fiance, who works in the technology industry, to run a few tests.
Four doors down the block, though, at Omijie Gifts and Collectibles, owner Kester Omijie doesn't want to test the PC he uses to handle the finances for his store. He said he worries that if he tries to roll the clock forward, he might irreparably crash his system. "I don't want it to break down," Omijie said.
Instead, Omijie plans to print out his important records and sit tight. If there's a problem, he said he'll rely on the printouts until his system can be fixed.
"I'm going to wait and see," he said. "I don't want to try anything now."
No Need for Tests
At the Foliograph Gallery, located a few yards up Omijie's side of the street, employees use a computer to track inventory of prints and price custom framing jobs. But owner Larry Josephson also isn't bothering with extensive Y2K tests. He doesn't need to.
The store has an Apple Macintosh computer, whose internal clock, like all Macs, won't have date problems until the year 29940--almost 300 centuries from now. "I'm not really anticipating any problems," gloated Josephson.
Nevertheless, about six months ago--partly for fun and partly "just to make sure"--he turned the clock forward on the Mac Performa 180 in the store to see whether the database software he uses to track pricing and inventory would operate as promised. It did.
"It's good to be lucky," he said.
Josephson, however, has wondered how far along his suppliers are in their repair efforts. But even if there are a few delays in getting framing supplies in the first few months of the year, it shouldn't have too much of an impact on his business. "If we could survive a three-week UPS strike, whatever happens for a few days won't be material to us," he predicted.
Others on the street are equally sanguine. At the Burke & Herbert bank, whose building sits at the corner of King and Fairfax streets, executives have spent about $200,000 to upgrade their computer systems--a task that's largely completed, said David Burke, the bank's chairman.
Like others on the street, the bank hasn't been a big fan of technology. In the late 1970s, when most of the banking world was using computers, Burke & Herbert's dozen branches in Northern Virginia were still using antiquated Burroughs bookkeeping machines. When the bank finally went digital in the early '80s, the management hung black bunting over the front door.
"We've been dragged into the computer age reluctantly," said Burke. "I'm sure those bookkeeping machines wouldn't have had a problem."
For Burke's neighbors who don't use computers, from the Record Mart store across the street to Market Square down the block, Y2K has given them cause to bask in technological naivete. "We're not quite in the 20th century let alone the 21st," said Jerry Horton, the owner of the record store, who uses index cards to track his inventory of 50,000 vinyl albums.
"Everyone has said that getting a computer would have been more efficient," Horton mused. "But sticking with the index cards is probably saving me a big headache."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company