Y2 K: The End Game

There's still time for nonbelievers to protect themselves

Go on, admit it: Through defiance or denial, you haven't lifted a finger to fix your Year 2000 problems. You don't even know if you have any Y2K bugs. In fact, you're not sure there is such a thing--and neither are a lot of other entrepreneurs. The last time anyone checked, at midyear, more than 50% had no plans to find out whether their computers, networks, software, and supply lines will drop dead on Jan. 1. You've been a heathen, and proud of it, too.

But that was then. Now, with the millennial clock ticking down, you're wondering: What if the Y2K nuts are right? What if you can't get into your e-mail, or your computer eats your client contact list? Worse still, what if you decide to repent and become a Y2K believer, only to discover that it's too late--you're doomed to digital damnation?

Fear not. Unless the end of days is truly upon us, there's still time to save your business. But you may have to settle for damage control and circle back after the turn of the century for a more permanent solution. Here's what you need to know:

Assess Your Risk: In case you haven't paid attention, the Y2K bug stems from the fact that decades ago, software programmers used only two digits to represent each year. When this software sees a year "00," it may recognize it as 2000, or it may jump back to 1900, or anywhere else in history--messing up everything from project timelines to pension payouts. How this affects you depends on the type of hardware and software you are running.

The consensus is that Y2K will be more inconvenience than catastrophe. Forget about power failures and phone cutoffs. A more likely problem is that software won't be able to read a date, or that payments made over time might be miscalculated. "It's likely to be more like a flooded basement than to have your house picked up and moved to the next county," says Ray Boggs, a small-business market analyst with International Data Corp. That said, you'll probably kick yourself because you'll have to work extra weekends and nights to make repairs, and you'll lose new business in the process. The good news, says Boggs: "The smaller you are, the safer you are. You're less likely to have invested in custom software that may blow up, and don't have complex networks." Add another level of comfort if most of your hardware and software was bought in 1999; that's when most manufacturers finally stopped selling faulty gear. But brace yourself if you have older computers--even some bought in 1998--or custom databases and other applications that employ dates in their calculation.

Test, Test, Test: You won't be able to do the methodical search-and-destroy mission outlined by the National Institute of Standards & Technology (www.nist. gov). There is no time for assembling work groups and "doing remediation project planning and management." Instead, focus on the truly critical components of your business--the software and hardware you've used within the last week, Boggs suggests--and figure out whether they're Y2K compliant. A call to the manufacturer or your reseller would be a good start, and many offer fixes via their Y2K Web pages--though these aren't always a magic bullet.

For instance, Intuit Inc. notes that its QuickBooks99 accounting program is already Y2K-compliant (www.quickbooks.com), and recent releases like QuickBooks 6.0 can be fixed with a free downloadable patch. But Intuit confesses that it won't even bother to test older versions like 2.0, shipped in 1993. Sure, there's a free Y2K update, but you were supposed to have installed it by Oct. 31--that's when Intuit dropped technical support. And the CD version won't be much use because delivery takes up to six weeks--in other words, January. Plan on spending up to three hours downloading the update, or, as Intuit helpfully suggests, you could shell out $119 for a brand-new version.

Also pay close attention to the definition of "compliant." Accpac, a rival accounting system made by Computer Associates International Inc. (www.accpac.com), lists which versions of its software are compliant, but the definition assumes you've already installed the required patches. While you're at it, find out just how complete any support services will be. One of the better examples is Microsoft Corp. (888 MSFT-Y2K), which promises phone support on weekends, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

For less specialized products, get a year 2000 utility, which will scan your hardware, software, and data files, identify problems, and offer suggestions and fixes. Two of the strongest are Symantec Corp.'s Norton 2000 and Viasoft's OnMark 2000 Assess (about $50 each). Both check a computer's ability to maintain dates, scan its drives to identify applications, and explain potential problems. They also scan Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, Access, dBase, Paradox, FoxPro, and Clipper files for dates. For sophisticated tasks like scanning tables, forms, and source codes, ViaSoft offers OnMark 2000 Workbenches for Lotus Notes ($4,950), Access, and Excel ($1,995).

The Very Last Minute: Still not sure if you're in trouble? The Small Business Administration is running Y2K seminars right through the last week of December, including one on Dec. 8 sponsored by CNET, Microsoft, and the city of San Francisco that you can attend online, even if you're not a resident. The Federal Y2K Information Center has live help during business hours at 888 USA-4Y2K.

If you've read this far, you probably need to back up your system or at least your most critical data, such as customer lists, receivables, and contracts. Printouts might do for small files, but a better choice would be a tape drive or other medium that won't be affected by dates. If all else fails, keep paper records on new transactions until the end of the year and then input them as soon as your Y2K fixes are done. Sure, it's a pain. But take the time to do it right, and you won't have to go through this when the next millennium rolls around.

Want to attend a last-minute seminar on beating the Y2K bug? Click Online Extras at frontier.businessweek.com