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Is Your PC Fit for the Millennium?

April 15, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By now you've probably heard about the "millennium bug," also known as "the year 2000 problem" or just "Y2K." President Clinton has discussed it at Cabinet meetings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has addressed Parliament on the issue, and many small-business owners have, no doubt, wondered whether it will affect their organization.

Blair, Clinton and anyone else who runs a large organization have plenty of reason to worry about the calendar change that will occur in 2000 because it is expected to affect old mainframe computers, some of which are still running software written in the 1960s and '70s. But that doesn't mean it will affect your small business. Unless you've been computerized for several years or rely on data that was entered some time ago, chances are pretty good that your company won't melt down the moment the clock strikes midnight Dec. 31, 1999. But you should still take precautions because the millennium bug could strike where it's least expected.

Although the solutions are elusive, the year 2000 problem itself is pretty straightforward. When computers came along in the '40s and '50s, few people thought about how to handle the turn of the century. So, when programmers designed databases that required the year, it was common for them to allow for only two digits. The birth date for someone born Nov. 30, 1947 would have been entered as 11/30/47. But, as the year 2000 rolls around, such information becomes a bit ambiguous--are we talking about 1947 or 2047?

The Small Business Administration has set up a Web page, http://www.sba.gov/y2k/, called "Small Business Help for the Year 2000." Unfortunately, much of the information on that page is oriented toward large companies and government agencies like the SBA itself.

Although no segment of the computing public is invulnerable to the year 2000 bug, the organizations most seriously affected tend to be the larger and older ones. Having said that, small businesses, including businesses with new computer systems, can also be vulnerable under certain circumstances.

If you have any IBM compatible computers that have been around for more than a few years, there is a possibility that the PC's internal clock may not automatically change from 1999 to 2000. This is unlikely if you have a PC with a Pentium processor but quite possible with 486, 386 and older products. The problem is that the chip (called the "BIOS") that controls the date on some older PCs is not able to handle four-digit dates. But even some of these machines can be made to work right by simply setting the correct date and restarting the machine. Mac users have nothing to worry about on this front. Even the earliest Macs were programmed to handle dates up to 2040 and newer ones can go to the year 29,940.

A more serious issue is whether your software and data are compatible, especially if you have databases, financial programs or other software where users have entered two-digit date codes.

On this issue, no hardware platform--including Macs and even the newest PCs--are immune. What you have to determine is whether your software is compatible and whether all your data is OK. Even if you are currently using year-2000-compliant software, you may be in trouble if all of your dates have only two digits. You could also be in trouble if you upgraded from an earlier system. A business that once used an old Mac or PC version of Quicken, for example, could have ambiguous dates in its data even though the company has imported that data into a compliant version of Quicken or Quickbooks.

The best thing to do is to check with your software vendors and ask them about older versions if you've upgraded. You can call, but it might be quicker to go to each company's Web site, and if there's a search command, search for "year 2000."

I did that on Intuit's Web site and discovered that all versions of its Quickbooks small-business accounting systems are OK through at least 2025.

Windows 95 users can find out if their programs are getting the correct date by clicking on the regional settings in the control panel, selecting the date tab and changing the "short date style" to display all four digits of a year. Then, according to information on Microsoft's Web site, "all applications will display dates in the four-digit format as a default."

Some PC database programs, including Microsoft Access 2.0, will display two-digit dates that default to between 1900 and 1999. If you have such a database, be sure to check if a two-digit date code was used.

If possible, try to change it to the appropriate four-digit code. If you use Microsoft products (and who doesn't?), check out the company's year 2000 Web page at http://www.microsoft.com/ithome/topics/year2k/

Even if all of your computers, software and databases are compatible, you could be at risk if you interface with databases or computer systems from other organizations.

The best policy is not to panic but just check your systems and your suppliers and partners one by one.

Personally, I'm hoping that my bank will credit me with an extra 100 years worth of interest on my savings account, but, with my luck, I'll get a letter saying that my credit card payment is 100 years past due.

You can e-mail Lawrence J. Magid at magid@latimes.com and visit his Web site at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL use keyword LarryMagid.

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