What About Your Millennium Bug?

Most PC owners have little to worry about, if they take a few precautions

The public has been warned. The year 2000 will hit corporate computers with the force of El Nino, potentially imperiling aircraft, halting tax collections, and generally clobbering commerce. Corporations are spending billions to solve the "Y2K" problem, but what should owners of personal computers do to protect themselves?

In most cases, I think you have little or nothing to worry about. Corporations and governments must fix programs and databases that were designed decades ago. Back then, the millennium was hardly a speck on the horizon, and very high storage costs encouraged programmers to cheat and use just two digits to identify a year. Personal computers entered widespread use in the mid-1980s and were designed with the 21st century in mind. Unfortunately, however, some of the methods for handling the millennium were flawed. These glitches will cause annoyances for some, but they won't threaten your files or the ability of computers to function.

TRICKY ISSUE. The biggest issue is how PCs keep track of the date (Macintoshes don't have Year 2000 problems). The key is a program called the BIOS that is permanently stored in read-only memory and runs when the computer boots up.

The computer's clock puts out a two-digit year code, and the BIOS adds the century. When the year hits 2000, one of three things will happen, depending on what operating system you are using and what company wrote your computer's BIOS program and when.

If your personal computer was made after mid-1995, odds are it will handle the date change just fine. Most older computers will show the date as 1900. Once you manually reset the date to 2000, however, the year will be correct from then on, at least until 2099.

Some software will automatically make the correction for you. Windows NT, IBM PC-DOS 7.0, and the upcoming Windows 98 will take note of the change from 1999 to 1900, realize that it is wrong, and fix it. If you run Windows 95, Windows 3.1, or any version of MS-DOS, you can find shareware programs at repositories such as www.shareware.com that will also deal with the problem--in most cases.

The trouble is that a relatively small number of machines won't respond to either a manual or automatic fix. For example, BIOS chips programmed by Award Software International between April, 1994, and May, 1995, will reset to 1980--the year the IBM PC was introduced--every time the computer is restarted. The only fix is to download a new BIOS program or, in some cases, replace the chips.

How do you find out if you have a problem? Do not set your clock to Dec. 31, 1999, to see what happens. That just might trigger time bombs in software and cause subscription services to expire. Phoenix Technologies Ltd., a leading writer of BIOS programs, suggests this safe alternative: Start your computer from a floppy containing just the files needed to boot up. From the command prompt, use the time and date commands to set the clock to a few minutes before midnight on Dec. 31, 1999. Wait until the clock ticks past midnight. Then, without running any other programs, restart the machine and check the date. If it shows Jan. 1, 2000, you're fine. If it doesn't, set the year manually to 2000, and restart again. If the year shows either 1900 or 1980, you probably need a BIOS upgrade. Either way, reset the date and time and reboot.

EXCEL SCHEME. In the corporate world, the nasty Year 2000 woes involve software; most PC applications are not a problem. Microsoft Corp.'s Excel spreadsheet, for example, stores dates with four-digit years. If you put in a two-digit year, it will assume that years 30 or higher are in the 20th century and years 29 or below are in the 21st. You can override the assumption by entering a four-digit year. Other spreadsheet and database programs use similar schemes. Unless you use some poorly designed custom software, you shouldn't have problems.

And even if your computer's date is wrong in the new millennium, you can choose to live with it, if necessary, by setting the system date manually every time you start your computer. You can also choose to ignore wrong dates on your files and electronic mail messages. After all, most of the computers with problems will be at least five years old in 2000. As Bernard Luksich, Y2K expert at Compaq Computer Corp. puts it: "If you are running an old machine with an old operating system, you may not care."

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