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Century-Ready? In about 1,000 days, there is a distinct likelihood that your camera, stereo or coffee maker will stop working, or so said several experts in recent testimony before a congressional subcommittee that's examining the year-2000 computer problem.

Most of the concern surrounding the issue focuses on large corporate computer systems, which, because of a lack of foresight many years ago, often use two-digit dates--and thus are subject to all kinds of problems when the century changes.

Now some consultants and government officials are warning that the turn of the century could also mean trouble for your VCR, microwave, home cooling system or any number of consumer electronic appliances with a timing function.

The reason is that most electronic devices use embedded microchips to keep track of time. That chip may have been programmed in a machine language that also uses two-digit dates, such as "99" to mean the year 1999. For these chips, the new century will be read as "00," or 1900.

The problem could cause failure in 2% to 4% of embedded microchips--a very large number considering there are many billions of embedded microchips running home appliances throughout the country.

"Manufacturers are asleep on this, and it is time to sound the alarm," says Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Long Beach), chairman of the committee investigating year-2000 issues.

But evaluating whether a particular product line is vulnerable to failure because of the date change may prove to be almost impossible because of the way consumer electronics are assembled. And vendors reject the idea that there is a real problem.

"We don't see a potential problem," said Jonathan Thompson, a spokesman with the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn., an industry trade group in Arlington, Va. "Our engineers are telling us it's not really an issue. . . . Most consumer electronics count by days, not years. I think [those sounding the alarm] don't have a clear understanding of what our industry is capable of."

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