Trouble buying into the Y2K scare mentality, huh?
You and lots of others: A recent Gallup/USA Today poll found that, since last December, the number of polled Americans suffering the Y2K willies had dropped dramatically, by two-thirds: Now only 11 percent expected the millennium bug to cause "major problems."
Earlier this month, the nonprofit Americans Talk Issues Foundation released a survey that determined only 10 percent of Americans so far have bothered to take what may be the easiest and most basic step toward personal Y2K readiness -- purchasing emergency supplies. Only 8 percent have bought self-reliant home power supplies in anticipation of power failures.
Clearly the doomsayers, who this very minute are renovating their bomb shelters (stocked with a six-month supply of dehydrated food), are operating on an agenda different from most ordinary Americans. But there are some Y2K glitches that seem certain and deserve the public's attention -- sooner rather than later.
This much we know for sure: When the internal calendars roll over at year's end, many older computers and calendar-driven microprocessor chips that haven't been modified or replaced in other products are going to read only the last two "00" digits of the new year 2000. They are going to mistake it for the year 1900, get confused, then crash. Come Jan. 1, some consumer products and electronic systems -- maybe some of them in your home -- are going to go south for the winter.
So even if you scoff that only crazies are figuring on banks faltering and airplanes dropping from the sky, it's time to recognize it's not crazy to check out the Y2K readiness of those electronic products you rely on day in and day out -- from cars to VCRs to home PCs.
How to start? Enter Larry Shafer. Last December, he began searching for Y2K answers for his grandmother and ended up creating one of this quickly fading century's most helpful Web sites for ordinary consumers confronting Y2K problems.
"I was visiting my grandmother and she asked me, `What's Y2K and how is it going to affect my Social Security check?' She was concerned about what this computer problem might do to her life, and she doesn't even own a computer," said Shafer, an e-commerce consultant in San Francisco.
Looking for facts on the Internet or elsewhere to reassure his grandmother, Shafer found lots of hype and nothing much useful. He tried checking out his new cellular telephone to verify that its dial tone wouldn't flatline on Jan. 1, and came up empty-handed. He tried other electronic products and couldn't get straight answers.
"I decided if so many people are interested in this -- like my grandmother and me -- there needed to be a resource on the Web," said Shafer, who in February launched the first-ever Y2K compliance database where consumers can investigate which products may fail come the new year. Called Y2Kbase.com, http://y2k.y2kbase.com/y2kbase/, the site has counted more than half a million users so far.
Not that Y2Kbase.com is the end-all of your personal prep work for the end of the year. Shafer culls most of the compliance information from Web sites of the largest manufacturers worldwide and from direct requests he makes to corporations. It ranges from easy-to-use product- and model-specific data and corporate readiness statements dense with legalese to the site's own interpretation of available information, depending on what a company makes available. Indeed, some manufacturers don't want to go anywhere near the Y2K issue, writing compliant products off with a brusque "not applicable," or not addressing it at all.
Fact is that unwanted fireworks aren't likely to go off inside most consumer products around the house. Home appliances such as blenders, clock radios, coffee makers, microwaves and heating and cooling equipment won't glitch and shut down, because they use simple clock functions instead of month/date/year calendar functions. Even products that do use calendar functions, such as home security systems, VCRs and camcorders, probably won't experience problems unless they are older models purchased before the late '80s, according to the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion.
But consulting Y2Kbase.com can serve as a convincing starting point for doing something about how the Y2K bug might affect your daily life -- and for reassuring yourself what stuff will hit the road running in the next millennium.
Best place to begin in the site's 14 product and service categories is with what you could least do without -- like maybe the family car. From the main screen, I clicked on "Automobile" and immediately found every car manufacturer from Acura to Volvo. Wondering if my 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon will still have its fahrvergnugen after Jan. 1, I checked out the Y2K info for V-dubs and couldn't get past "not applicable."
But is that good news or bad? All of the corporations on Y2Kbase.com are hot-linked to the corporate Web site, so I clicked to the official Volkswagen Web site. Not a word about the Y2K bug. I called the toll-free Volkswagen Information Center number listed there and "Kelly," a VW answer woman, said there's no danger "due to the fact that VWs do not have that computer date clock in them."
Aquick survey of other auto manufacturers found that most don't dwell on Y2K problems, especially the foreign ones, presumably because it's not applicable. Mercedes-Benz directs all Y2K inquiries to a contact person in New Jersey. BMW states confidently that its Y2K program has been running since 1996 and "it can be ruled out that any cars which have been delivered or that will be produced in the future will experience any sort of problems due to the millennium bug."
The same can't be said of home computer hardware and software. The upside is that computer companies have been among the most forthright in addressing the Y2K crisis and informing their customers. The downside is that the biggest problems are embedded inside their computers. It's under that bridge where the Y2K troll dwells after all.
Y2Kbase.com lists 44 computer system brands, large and small, from Acer America and Apple to Tandy/Radio Shack and Zeos. Point and click on your brand for the company's statement, or for the hot link to its Y2K Web site.
Clicking on IBM, I was directed to Big Blue's Year 2000 Technical Support Center, where detailed instructions guide users from simple matters such as finding the PC product identification to using tools that test readiness. Once you've identified your IBM hardware, the site will generate a Y2K product readiness report and identify what actions, if any, are necessary.
Most of the hardware sites pinpoint dates after which their products were made Y2K compliant. All Acer models using an Acer BIOS developed after January 1996, for example, are compliant, and Gateways purchased before July 1994, face problems. Rule of thumb? There is none. Most hardware manufacturers offer easy-to-follow instructions for fixing troubled models -- including updates and fixes from their Web sites.
Printers, scanners and other external devices such as Zip drives have to be checked out too, though most aren't dependent on calendar functions. But who would guess software was so vulnerable? Spreadsheets, money managers, operating systems, some of them are tied to year-specific functions that will be nothing to celebrate on New Year's Day if not patched, fixed or updated. Plan on spending an enlightening afternoon before then at the Microsoft Web site.
I investigated my year-old 900 MHz cordless Panasonic telephone next. The site enables visitors to search for a specific model, but browsing for potential Y2K problems is more fun. While Panasonic's extensive Y2K Web site lists my model as "compliant," I couldn't help but notice that several other models will require a manual reset of the date on Feb. 29. Did someone fail to mention that the year 2000 isn't only the start of a new decade and gateway to the new millennium, it's also a Leap Year?
Other telecommunications links let you track your entire telephone line for Y2K readiness -- from regional Bell companies and long-distance carriers to wireless phone services and Internet service providers. Bell Atlantic, for instance, reported that its Enterprise Year 2000 Program was "working to make Saturday, Jan. 1, 2000, `just another day on the network.' " AT&T's Y2K Web site smothers visitors in so much information and technical chat that it's best to take specific questions directly to its "Ask Us" page.
Under "Home Appliances," I checked out our year-old Amana furnace. It contains no computer calendar components and is therefore Y2K compliant. Same for the Whirlpool dishwasher and clothes dryer, the Jenn-Air cooktop, the Hewlett-Packard printer.
Only possible trouble was the two Panasonic VCRs, which do use calendar functions -- but both were declared Y2K compliant. Apparently none of our other household electronic products or appliances pose a problem. And for any particular model that I couldn't find info on, I could e-mail a request to Y2Kbase.com, which will research it at no cost, send the answer via e-mail and post the results on the site. Consumers also can register for the Web site's Y2K Consumer Alert, an "e-mail newsletter" that provides news and practical advice regarding Y2K consumer issues.
Once you've checked out appliances and products that are close to home, Shafer advises that consumers expand their Y2K awareness. "We need to have other concerns beyond whether the VCR is going to work, such as, `Is my employer's payroll system going to work after the new year,' " he said, predicting that interest would "grow exponentially" in the next three months.
"What's really important to our lives that may be affected? Electricity, water, things like that. It really doesn't matter that your computer works if there is no electricity."