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By Art Glick


(Three little digits that shook the world?)

(Originally Published in March, 1998)

Next to the Internet, "Year 2000 Compatibility" (abbreviated "Y2K") might just be about the biggest story in the world of computers. To be sure, it affects just about every person that uses a computer, both at home and at work, but most of the news that you read about this subject pertains to the millions of lines of software code that will have to be rewritten for those computers running custom or professional software. The burning question is, how does this affect the average everyday computer user.

When the "IBM Compatible" PC and its operating systems were originally designed, the industry was a little bit shortsighted. No one really expected that the basic design developed in the early 1980's would still be in use at the end of the millennium, and the capacity of the hardware then was a tiny fraction of what it is today.

As is so common the custom with non-computer situations, the original time and date clock in the PC was given only two digits to keep track of the year. When you see the date "1998", the leading two digits are added in after the clock calculates the year. Consequently, on non-Y2K systems, when you try to enter the date as 01/01/2000, it will default to 01/01/1900.

You might imagine how this could wreak havoc on software applications that depend on the PC to supply a date from its clock.

In the last year or two, the industry has begun to deal with the problem, and the latest hardware has no problems dealing with dates in the next century. For the most part, if you purchased your PC in the last year, it most likely has hardware that it Y2K compatible (unless you've been stuck with someone's "old stock").

But the Y2K issue is a two headed monster. It is both hardware and software.

Just as the people designing the original PC hardware were shortsighted about four digit date tracking, so were the programmers that wrote the software to run on them. After all, why write code for data that doesn't exist?

As the end of the century nears, programmers are scrambling to correct an uncountable number of lines of program code to account for four digit dates, and this is really the biggest part of the story. The government and large corporations use mammoth software that is essentially custom made, and the task of rewriting all this software is monumental.

You may not think that this affects you, but you might change your mind come January 2000 when you get a statement from your credit card company assessing you for a century's worth of interest!

Unfortunately, with regard to this part of the situation, there really isn't anything that most of us can do but hope that the job can be done in time without too much inconvenience.

But what about your own little PC sitting on your desk at home or in the office? Well, again, the issue is two fold - hardware and software. One of the easiest things that you can do is to simply try to change the date on your system to one in the next century (don't forget to change it back). If it reads "1900", then you do not have Y2K hardware.

But even if you can set a date after the year 2000, you cannot be certain that your hardware is totally Y2K compatible. There are other issues involved that are beyond the scope of this article. You can, however, download a number of free utilities from the Internet that will test your system for you and advise you outright in plain terms whether or not your hardware is totally Y2K.

Try either www.hotfiles.com (my current favorite) or www.shareware.com, and you should easily find several choices.

Okay, now you're probably wondering whether or not you'll have to buy another PC if yours is not Y2K, and the good news is, maybe not. The internal time/date clock in your PC is governed by a special input/output chip known as the BIOS chip.

In many cases, you can purchase a BIOS upgrade which will impart Y2K compatibility to your hardware. In many cases you cannot. When your computer first starts, it displays a screen full of long cryptic numbers, and to the right person, these will reveal what type of BIOS you have, and from there you can determine whether an upgrade is available.

BIOS upgrades generally have a "street price" of just under $100., and if you feel comfortable opening your computer, replacing a chip and checking your settings, there really isn't much more to it. A BIOS upgrade may also yield some other benefits including Enhanced IDE (to make your hard drive run faster) and LBA support (to allow larger hard drives to be recognized).

As for the Y2K compatibility of the software that you are running, unless you are using custom or specialized software, you should not have a problem. If you have not purchased your software recently, then you will probably have to purchase an upgrade in the next year and a half, but given the fact that companies like Microsoft and Corel have tens of millions of users, one would hope that Y2K compatibility will be adequately addressed. Check with the publisher regarding your particular version of any software you have that reads the system date.

Now, all of the above really pertains to the pervasive "IBM Compatible PC". Those of you hobbled with Apple's Mac computers will have to do a little more research. In all fairness, Apple has always been more farsighted with regard to such issues, and I would suspect that Y2K Macs appeared before such IBM-PC's did, but there are so fewer Macs than PC's that the software issue could be more of a problem.

I would suspect that, as with PC's, you can find a utility to download to test your Mac's Y2K capabilities, although I'd guess, as with everything for the Mac, it would be less common (there are several for the PC).

In conclusion, Y2K is not the nightmare that some of the alarmists would have us believe, but it will affect everyone, whether or not you even use a computer. And at least the first few months of the next century will be interesting as all the kinks are resolved.

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