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Getting Y2K Ready

Take steps now to prepare your home PC for Jan. 1, 2000.

By DAVE GUSSOW and JOHN TORRO

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 1999


You heard about it, read about it and wondered about it. Then, imagine it is Jan. 1 and you forgot about it -- you didn't check your home computer for the year 2000 problem.

What will happen when you fire up the computer? Will it crash? Will you stare at a blank screen? Will it just sit there like a car with a dead battery?

Those who know say not to expect anything so dire.

"The computers will turn on and work. The dates may be incorrect," said Ted Erfer, director of national accounts at NSTL (www.nstl.com), a company near Philadelphia that tests hardware.

For all the billions of dollars that businesses are spending to update software and check hardware, home users are more likely to experience inconvenience and irritation than a meltdown. Incorrect dates are not necessarily a crisis. As Erfer pointed out in an e-mail interview, during the early days of DOS systems, users had to set the date manually every time the computer was turned on.

"The downside to having the wrong date for the average home user is file dates would be incorrect and financial software and calendar programs could be wrong," Erfer said.

Consumers still have time to check their systems to make sure everything is okay for Jan. 1. In most cases, it will require surfing the Web, because most hardware and software vendors offer the necessary information and any patches on their Web sites.

There are as many variations on this theme as there are brands of hardware and versions of software. But here is a guide on what to watch for if you are trying to do your own Y2K bug-fixing:

The PC

A PC tracks dates in three places

* The CMOS Hardware Real Time Clock (RTC), which maintains a two-digit year (so this year is 99).

* The Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) -- the software that controls the motherboard. It gets the two-digit year from the CMOS RTC and appends a pair of century digits

* The operating system (such as Windows and DOS), which picks up the date from the BIOS software and passes it along to most software programs.

Since the CMOS Hardware Real Time Clock will roll to 00 after 99, the BIOS software will be responsible for making the correct assumption of what century digits to attach to the year.

And that is where problems can begin on older PCs.

Most PCs built before 1996 may have BIOS that will roll back in time from 12/31/1999 to 1/1/1900.

Older versions of Windows, including Windows 3.1, aren't up to correcting the problem without your help. Your aging Windows will see this date, know something is wrong, and promptly set the year to 1980 (the first year of DOS).

Here is what to do: If your PC thinks it is Jan. 1, 1980 when you start it on New Year's Day, simply reset the date correctly through Windows (double-click the clock or go to Control Panel, then Date/Time). This should take care of the problem for most PCs for the next 100 years.

Newer versions of Windows won't make the same mistake. Windows NT 3.51(sp5), Windows NT 4.0, Windows 98 and the upcoming Windows 2000 (NT 5.0) have logic built into them that will recognize 1900 as an error and will automatically compensate by setting the date to 2000.

However, there is one other glitch that may hit some users.

On some older computers, the BIOS will revert to the old, incorrect setting every time you boot up. If that happens, the BIOS software will need to be updated. To do that, you'll have to contact the BIOS vendor. Information on the BIOS normally flashes on the screen when the computer boots up.

How can you tell in advance whether your PC will roll correctly into 2000? Either double-click the clock in Windows or go to Control Panel, then Date/Time. Set the time to 11:59 p.m. 12/31/1999, shut down and then reboot after waiting 5 minutes.

Warning: Make sure you disable any software that is time-sensitive (scheduling software, for example) before doing this test. And be aware that this may cause problems with software (leased or demo) that has time limits. The test could trigger the software to expire and be permanently disabled.

Apple Computer says its computers and operating system are compliant -- that means they will handle the year 2000 without problems. Still, Macintosh users need to check their software (such as Quicken and Word) to make sure it is okay as well.

Financial software

For example, Intuit makes the top-selling personal finance program Quicken. It lists about 100 products on its site (www.intuit.com/support/y2k_standard.html), giving them ratings such as "compliant," "not compliant" and "won't be tested" (mostly older versions)

In other words, Quicken is making no promises for its early software, leaving you the choice of buying an upgrade or taking your chances.

The Quicken site also indicates what patches are available.

Newer versions of Quicken that allow online banking, paying of bills and tracking investments will require a patch that you can download from the site.

And don't call Quicken -- or most other software vendors -- on the phone to ask Y2K questions. Callers are directed to the Web site, Intuit spokeswoman Mary Giani said.

Beyond its own software, Intuit recommends that consumers check with hardware and software vendors starting in July to find out whether they are compliant and, if not, what needs to be done. One main recommendation: Back up your data.

"It's a good idea whether entering year 2000 or year 2005," Giani said. "It's something all consumers should be aware of and do religiously."

Microsoft says all versions of its personal-finance software, Money, are compliant.

More Microsoft

But the result is a morass of hard-to-follow descriptions of what problems you may face. Some versions of a program may be compliant and others not

For example, the Microsoft site lists 13 versions of its top-selling Office suite of products, which include Word and Excel. Both Office 95 and Office 97 Standard are deemed compliant by the company -- but only after users download updates available at the company site.

An older version, Office 4, is described as compliant with "minor exceptions." For example, trying to open a Power Point file created in Office 4 with a newer version of Office will result in dates displayed in an incorrect format, which can be either on the screen or within the program itself.

Date problems can occur in older versions of the Excel spreadsheet program. Excel 5 will read 01/01/15 as Jan. 1, 2015, but 01/01/25 as Jan. 1, 1925. Microsoft says users can display a four-digit date for the year to avoid the problem. Uncorrected date problems in Excel could affect calculations in the spreadsheet program.

Version 5 of Word, Microsoft's word processing program, runs in DOS and is not compliant. It will give invalid dates and will have corrupted information in the Library Document Retrieval menu. That is the dialog box that appears on the Open File menu item using the Advanced button and is used to find files.

The creation and revision date fields will default to invalid dates the first time the document is saved. If such a file is opened and changed, the summary information in the Library Document Retrieval menu will become corrupted with strange characters, text from other menus or other file names (the dates will probably change to 00/00/00). In some cases after the file has been saved several times, the computer will freeze.

Later versions, such as Word 95 and 98, are compliant, though both require downloading patches to avoid minor problems. For Word 95, according to the Microsoft site, the patch changes the way dates are handled. With the update, years entered as 00-29 are assumed to be 2000-2029. But the site indicates that years 30-99 will be read as 1930-1999, apparently because Microsoft figures most people entering those digits in the next few decades will be looking to dates in the past rather than the future.

Web resources

Erfer of NSTL says most major vendors have good sites, as do publishers of technology media, such as CMP, Ziff-Davis and C/Net

Some sites make it easy to check and find information. NSTL, for example, developed a testing tool used by PCmakers such as Dell, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard. NSTL has a free version available for download by home users, as well as a list (and links) of vendors whose systems have passed its tests.

PC Magazine's Y2K Resource Center (www.zdnet.com/pcmag/special/y2k/index.html) offers an array of useful articles, links (including to many software vendors), a test for your PC and other software.

Other free programs that will test your PC are at www.y2000fix.com, which has a program that will do the test without you having to manually set the date ahead.

Internet portals also provide a variety of information, such as news and links to other Y2K sites and information. Some sites, such as Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) and MSNBC (www.msnbc.com), which is partly owned by Microsoft, organize the information to make it easier to navigate.


-- Dave Gussow is Times Technology Editor. John Torro is a Times correspondent.

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