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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | COMPUTER BASICS / KIM KOMANDO

Careful, the Year-2000 Problem Could Do a Number on You Too

March 10, 1997|KIM KOMANDO

Less than three years from today, while merrymakers mark the new century at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, 2000, many of their computers may be experiencing a meltdown.

That private companies and government agencies are racing to ensure that their computer programs are equipped to handle the date change has been well-publicized. But few individuals or small-business people may realize that the year-2000 crisis is not limited to huge mainframe computers crunching massive amounts of information. If dates matter to your business and the information contained on your personal computer, you may also become a victim of the glitch.

The year-2000 problem didn't become a crisis overnight. Many of the issues big-and small-business computer users may face are due in large part to standards set 20 or 30 years ago. For the sake of saving system resources, programmers of that era decided to forget about the first two digits in a year, leaving all the years of the 20th century to be represented by the last two. Hence, in most computer programs, 1997 is represented by 97.

How could they be so sloppy? Quite simply, no one expected those programs to still be in use at the turn of the century. The result is that when the year 2000 comes, many software programs will think it's the year 1900. This becomes a problem if a software program that reaches conclusions based on dates is not fixed to handle four-digit years.

Let's say you took out a 30-year home loan in 1990 that will be paid off in 2020. Unless the software program used by the mortgage broker or bank knows better, it will perform the amortization calculations using the formula 20 minus 90 and reach a result of minus 70.

Or perhaps your local bank uses a computerized system to open the vaults every Monday at 8 a.m. The vaults might open automatically on Jan. 1, 2000 (a Saturday) because the computer thinks it's Jan. 1, 1900 (a Monday).

Such problems are smacking computer departments in the face all over the world. It's a race against time to prevent chaos. The dollars needed to fix the problem are staggering. The Internal Revenue Service alone announced recently that it needs at least $129 million to reprogram its computers.

But don't think for a moment that you, the home or business PC user, are free from troubles. If you are using an older version of Microsoft Windows or MS-DOS, or another 16-bit operating system, you might encounter the millennium malady too. Here's how to check to see how your personal computer will respond to the year 2000. At the DOS prompt, change the date to Dec. 31, 1999, and change the time to 11:59 p.m. Turn off your computer and wait two or three minutes. Turn your computer back on and check the date. If your computer thinks the year is either 1980 or 1984, you have a problem. Luckily, the fix is free. You can download the file year2000.zip at http://www.rightime.com. Be sure to follow the instructions in the readme.txt file included in the compressed file. If the file does not fix the date problem, contact your computer's manufacturer for a flash BIOS patch.

Windows 95 and Windows NT can handle dates up to 2099. If you have a Macintosh, you're in the clear too. However, you may have problems if you use a date and time utility package, rather than the Toolbox supplied by the Mac OS. The former limits dates between Jan. 1, 1920, and Dec. 31, 2019. You can set a date beyond 2019, up to the year 2040, by using the Macintosh Toolbox call SetDateTime.

No matter which operating system you are using, you must also consider the application software programs running on your PC. Older programs, generally those released before 1996, have the most problems. Microsoft Access 95 has a date limit of 1999. Microsoft Excel 95 handles dates only up to 2019.

You'll find that older database and spreadsheet programs will treat the year 2000 as 1900 when sorting dates. A simple test is to make a table and see what happens when you sort by date. You can also try a calculation by using the date Feb. 29, 2000, or making an appointment on this date in your contact management program. If your software causes problems or the date is unavailable, contact the publisher for an upgrade.

Kim Komando is a Fox TV host, syndicated talk radio host and founder of the Komputer Klinic on America Online (keyword KOMANDO). She can be reached via e-mail at komando@komando.com

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