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10/96 Analysis: The Explorer

It's the End of the World As We Know It

Will your software blow up in the year 2000? Or even sooner?

By: Mike Elgan, Editor

I'D LIKE TO DEBUNK two common myths about the Year 2000 Crisis.

Myth 1: It affects only mainframes, not Windows PCs. Myth 2: You have more than three years to fix the software.

The impending Year 2000 Crisis (affectionately abbreviated as the Y2K Crisis) has its roots decades earlier, when programmers standardized on a two-digit year ("85," for instance, represents 1985); thus, the computer assumes that the first two digits of the year are 1 and 9. These programs can't handle a date after 1999. This may sound like a small problem, but it's actually the biggest crisis the high-tech sector has ever faced.

Magazines and newspapers mention Y2K from time to time, often illustrating the issues with amusing anecdotes. Maybe you've read about packaged foods with expiration dates of 1902 or brand-new credit cards that are declined because they expired in 1905. (See "Notes from the Lab" in this issue's Newstrends section for details.)

The press accounts can be entertaining, but the problem is far more complex, dangerous and widespread than they let on. People who should grasp the scope and nature of the Y2K Crisis-the media, corporate executives and government officials-clearly do not.

The most important business applications-accounting software, personnel records, loan calculations, insurance, business forecasting-depend heavily on dates and calculations based on years.

The Gartner Group has come out with some shocking predictions. It estimates that 30 percent of all computer apps will not be year-2000-compliant in time, and that it will cost $300 billion to $600 billion-that's right, billion!-to fix the problem.

When you think about how many software applications handle dates, it gets scarier. There are related problems that many haven't considered.

For example, here are just four problems some computers have with the year 2000:

  1. It starts with a "2." Many programs recognize only those years that begin with "1."
  2. It ends with zeros. Some random-number generators use the system date and divide by the last two numbers. The programs can lock up when they try to divide by "00."
  3. It starts on a Saturday. Some software is designed to carry out specific instructions based on the day of the week, such as opening a bank vault on a Monday. If the computer calculates the day of the week by using the last two digits (which many do), it will assume Jan. 1, 2000 is a Monday because Jan. 1, 1900 was a Monday. So it will carry out its Monday instructions on Saturday-and open that vault.
  4. It's a leap year. Every fourth turn-of-the-century year is a leap year, but many programmers didn't know that when they wrote their business applications.

Y2K is a Windows problem

If you brushed Y2K off as a mainframe problem, consider this your wake-up call. Microsoft says 32-bit Windows (Win95 and NT) can deal with the years 1980 to 2099. But most PCs with 16-bit Windows have the millennium bug. At 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000, non-upgraded systems will think the year is either 1980 or 1984.

Here's how to see if your system will have trouble. Set the date and time on your system to Dec. 31, 1999, at 11:59 p.m. Exit Windows and turn off your machine. Wait 3 minutes, restart and check the time.

An estimated four out of five of the PCs using 16-bit Windows will reboot to the year 1980 or 1984. The cheapest fix is to download the file YEAR2000.ZIP ( and follow the instructions in the readme file.

The BIOS and operating-system Y2K bugs are relatively easy to fix. Ask your computer vendor for a Y2K flash BIOS patch.

The big nightmare is at the application level. Your company's custom software may be the hardest to deal with. You'll have to go through every application and painstakingly look for gotchas.

Even major shrink-wrapped software may cause you problems. Most Windows applications have date limitations hard-wired into them. In some cases, the date limit is the year 9999. No problem there. In others, however (such as Microsoft Access 95), the limit is 1999. Excel conks out after 2019.

Microsoft's solution to application-level date limitations is-drum roll, please-upgrade your Microsoft apps next year! (To see the life expectancy of most Microsoft products, visit C'mon, Microsoft; this is no solution. You should give away free patches that fix the problem rather than force customers to upgrade solely because of avoidable flaws in the software.

The initial release of Lotus 1-2-3 didn't account for the turn-of-the-millennium leap year. The program doesn't know there's a Feb. 29 in the year 2000. To make matters worse, competing spreadsheets Excel and Quattro Pro duplicated the problem, presumably for compatibility. Paradox treats the year 2000 as 1900 when sorting tables.

There are probably dozens, or even hundreds, of shrink-wrapped Windows applications on the market with Y2K-related problems waiting to happen. To find out if your application software is going to gag on the year 2000, or on the day Feb. 29, 2000, use the software to calculate and sort according to these dates and see what happens. If you run into problems, contact your vendor.

You don't have three years

Companies that don't deal with the Y2K Crisis will see up to 60 percent of their applications fail or deliver bad numbers before the year 2000, according to the Gartner Group. Any software that projects into the future will come unglued well before then.

And there are other risks you may not have considered. Lawsuits, for example. Companies that don't adequately deal with Y2K problems immediately can anticipate lawsuits from clients, customers and shareholders. Not after the year 2000, but as soon as your software starts costing them money.

For specific, step-by-step approaches to solving Y2K problems, check out:

Take this problem seriously and act now. The problem is real, it affects Windows PCs, and the deadline is an immovable object.

Has the Y2K Crisis hit your company? Drop me a line and tell me about it.

Contact Editor Mike Elgan in "The Explorer" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or at

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