No matter what you've read or heard about the year-2000 computer bug, the fact remains that no one really knows what will happen to the world's computers at the turn of the year. In fact, the biggest problem that you face this New Year's Eve could be a champagne shortage.
But why take chances? While the Y2K bug probably won't cause ATMs to crash or airplanes to fall from the sky, it may very well affect your PC's operating system, your software, or your Web browser. But don't expect your company's MIS people to fix your system for you. The mandate at companies everywhere is to deal with so-called mission-critical applications first. Your company's techies are probably too busy wrestling with corporate-wide systems — mainframes, network servers — to worry about your pesky PC. So you'll need to look out for yourself.
The good news is that there are steps that you can take to innoculate your system against the Y2K bug. In this edition of Powertools, you'll find the FAQs of Y2K — the most frequently asked questions about this glitch — plus straightforward strategies and tools for safeguarding your system.
Bottom line: It's your choice. You can take action now to prevent problems, or you can simply hope that your computer won't fall back to 1900 when the rest of the world leaps into 2000.
What's the big deal?
For nearly 50 years, the people who wrote computer code used a standard two-digit shorthand to indicate the year — substituting, say, "99" for "1999." Early on, when computer memory was always in short supply, that practice made a lot of sense. But programmers continued using this shorthand even as memory capacity expanded.
As a result, when some computers see "00," they can't tell whether that figure refers to 1900 or 2000. And if your PC gets the date wrong, your system could lose or delete email that it thinks is 100 years old; your contact-management and scheduling software could fail to list crucial appointments; or your financial program could neglect to make automated mortgage payments. In short, you could be in for some real hassles.
Are all computers susceptible to the bug?
If you work on a Mac, you shouldn't have to worry about Y2K. As far as anyone can tell, even older-model Macintosh computers are ready for the New Year (and for many years to come). If you work on a Windows PC, however, read on. No version of Windows is immune from the Y2K bug — not even Windows 98 or Windows NT.
How might the bug affect my hardware?
The problem starts with the BIOS chip inside your PC. (BIOS stands for "basic input-output system.") This chip is responsible for (among other things) telling other components of your computer — as well as your software — what year it is.
How might the bug affect my system?
With some exceptions, including Windows 98 and NT, operating systems such as DOS and other versions of Windows blithely accept whatever date the BIOS chip gives them. Even worse, if the BIOS reports that the year is, say, 1900, the operating system may interpret that date as 1980 — the earliest year that the system recognizes.
Are there other areas of concern?
Applications, such as Microsoft Word and Excel and Netscape Navigator, must also be Y2K-compliant. Otherwise, they may get the date wrong — even if the BIOS and the operating system get it right.
The data that you enter into each program must also be Y2K-ready. If you've been entering years in spreadsheets as two-digit numbers, you may run into snags. For example, a cost-projection analysis that uses "21" to represent the year 2021 may perform extended-lease calculations using the year 1921 — and you'll end up wondering why your business plan failed.
I have a new computer: Do I still need to worry about Y2K?
Most PCs made before 1997 won't make the leap into 2000. You may have a problem even if your PC is less than two years old. The software firm Greenwich Mean Time estimates that more than 10% of the computers made as recently as last year are unprepared for Y2K.
To determine if your PC is vulnerable to the Y2K bug, record its model and serial number (you'll find that information on the back of the machine), and visit the manufacturer's Web site. Many companies have posted information on which of their systems are Y2K-ready, which ones aren't, and how you can solve any glitches.
What about the computer guys at my company? Aren't they supposed to make my system Y2K-compliant?
If you use a PC, you are "the computer guy": You've got to take responsibility for your own machine. Besides, even if your company's MIS people made your system Y2K-compliant several months ago, you might still encounter problems if you've downloaded data or added software since then.
So what can I do to protect my PC?
First, check the status of your machine's BIOS chip. Most computer manufacturers will tell you whether a chip is prepared for Y2K, and you can usually correct a problem by downloading a software patch from the Web.
I have an older operating system: What can I do to make it Y2K-compliant?
Users of Windows 3.1 (or DOS) will have more headaches than other PC users. But as the clock counts down to January 1, 2000, Microsoft is supplying downloadable fixes. Go to the Microsoft Web site and look for information on upgrades and patches. But realize that if you're using Windows 3.1, chances are good that you're also working with older applications that aren't ready for the year 2000 — and that software makers probably won't fix those applications. In other words, now is a really good time to upgrade to Windows 98.
Coordinates: Microsoft Corp., www.microsoft.com/technet/year2k
Do I need to protect machines running Windows 95 or Windows 98?
Even if you're using a later version of Windows, there are a couple of Y2K snafus that could affect you. First, you may be using programs that you carried over from Windows 3.1. If possible, upgrade those programs to Windows 95 or 98.
Second, to catch inaccurate dates in your applications, you might need to change the Windows default for short-term dates. For example, you may not be able to tell whether that "02" in your electronic calendar is registering as 2002 or 1902. Find out by resetting Windows 98 to display two-digit years as four-digit years.
Here's how: Go to the "Start" button, select "Settings," and choose "Control Panel." Then, under "Control Panel," go to "Regional Settings" and choose the "Date" tab. In the "Short Date Style" box, select the "m/d/yyyy" option. This option allows you to look at database files, spreadsheets, and the like to see if the information in them corresponds to the right century.
I've checked out my copy of Windows 98: What do I need to do about the rest of the software on my machine?
While you're examining the "Regional Settings Date" screen in Windows 98 (see the preceding paragraph), look for an instruction that tells the system to interpret any two-digit year as falling between 1930 and 2029. This function is known in computer parlance as a system's "pivot year."
Every software program has a "pivot year," which varies from package to package. A pivot year determines whether the software assigns a two-digit year to the 20th or the 21st century.
Say that you're using Microsoft Access 97, which uses the number "30" as its pivot year. Thus, if you enter "18," Access will assume that you mean 2018. If you enter "98," the program will assume that you mean 1998. To check the pivot year of your software, look for a date option in the program's settings, or visit the software manufacturer's Web site.
Will the Y2K bug keep me from cruising the Web?
No one can guarantee that, come January, your Web experience will be free of troubles. There are simply too many vulnerable links in the Internet chain: your phone company, your Internet-service provider, Internet routers, even electricity-generating utilities. Trouble at any one of these points could slow or stop traffic on the Net. But there is one thing that you can do on your own: Make sure that you have downloaded the latest Web browser to your machine.
Any version of Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Explorer that is labeled 4.0 or higher is Y2K-compliant. If you have an older version, go to the Netscape or Microsoft Web site and download a newer one. The time that you spend downloading now is worth the aggravation that you'll avoid later. Both programs are free.
Coordinates: Netscape Communications Inc., www.netscape.com; Microsoft Corp., www.microsoft.com
So that's it?
Not quite. One of the frustrating things about Y2K is that the more promiscuous you are with data, the greater the chance that your computer will be reinfected. For example, if a colleague emails you a spreadsheet that isn't Y2K-compliant, that document could torpedo your efforts to avoid problems.
And if you do online banking or bill paying, or any of the other online tasks that are becoming more and more popular, you could encounter even greater headaches. Fortunately, you don't have to waste time checking every application and every bit of information on your computer. Instead, simply check out the five sidebars that accompany this article: They're full of remedies and resources.
Action Item: Time Check
Instead of fretting about Y2K, simply test your computer's BIOS chip to find out if your machine is prepped for the New Year. (On most systems, the BIOS is the device that tells other parts of a computer what year it is.) Here are two free programs that can help.
TAntra Software's Cloktest 2000 determines whether your computer's BIOS can recognize the year 2000. Copy Cloktest onto a bootable floppy disk, and restart your PC with the disk in your floppy drive. Cloktest won't solve a BIOS problem for you, but it will tell you if there is a problem with your hardware.
Coordinates: Cloktest 2000, TAntra Software Ltd., http://members.aol.com/tantrauk/main.html
RighTime's Test2000.exe checks whether your computer can make the leap into the 21st century and whether it will show the correct date after rebooting.
Coordinates: Test2000.exe, the RighTime Co., www.rightime.com
Sidebar: Y2K Online
Don't even think of investing in Y2K software or in a consultant before checking out these free resources on the Web.
Y2K News Magazine This online publication posts news reports from various sources. Check out its frequently issued vendor-compliance reports.
Coordinates: Y2K News Magazine, www.y2knews.com
The Year 2000 Information Center Author and Y2K bon vivant Peter de Jager's site features lots of links to Y2K-busting companies, along with a comprehensive section on the legal repercussions of Y2K.
Coordinates: The Year 2000 Information Center, www.year2000.com SBA-Y2K The federal government has developed page after page of valuable Y2K information, and you can access much of that information through the Small Business Administration site.
Coordinates: SBA-Y2K, www.sba.gov/y2k
Sidebar: Y2K Solution for Dummies
Free agents and small-business owners might have no choice but to hire a Y2K consultant to check every piece of hardware, every software program, and every electronic file that could have a year-2000 problem. K.C. Bourne, a consultant and the author of "Year 2000 Solutions For Dummies," offers four pieces of advice for separating the competent professional from the fly-by-nighter.
Check references. Talk to former clients of the consultant. Find out whether he or she saw each client's project through from start to finish. Ask whether the price escalated as each project neared completion.
Go for experience. There's nothing wrong with people who are new to the computer-consulting industry — but why should they learn on your dime?
Insist on Y2K know-how. Find out if the consultant has done Y2K work on hardware and software like yours.
Reserve the right to reject staff. If the consultant sends over an assistant who turns out to be a bozo, you don't want any problems when you send the bozo back.
Coordinates: $29.99. "Year 2000 Solutions For Dummies," IDG Books World-wide, www.idgbooks.com
Sidebar: Quain's Top 10 Tips
1. Call your accountant. My accountant uses an old DOS program to do my taxes, and DOS is not Y2K-ready. Make sure that your accountant is prepared for the year 2000.
2. Pay by check. The longer the paper trail that you leave (in the form of canceled checks), the better prepared you'll be to handle Y2K disputes.
3. Pay bills early. That way, you'll have time to resolve any disputes that might arise in the New Year.
4. Load up on cash. Come December, you'll be able to avoid the crush of panicky people at your local ATM.
5. Get paper receipts. If you bank online, ask your financial institution to give you a hard-copy confirmation of every transaction.
6. Balance your checkbook. Your account might look hunky-dory in Quicken, but Quicken won't help you if your bank's electronic records go awry. You'll need a paper record.
7. Get records of your current balances. Should anything go amiss in the New Year, you'll need a paper baseline to straighten things out.
8. Get credit reports. Order copies from Equifax Inc. (www.equifax.com).
9. Take stock. Ask your broker to give you frequent updates on your stocks and mutual funds.
10. Follow up. After January 1, 2000, check back with credit-reporting bureaus, and obtain new copies of your credit reports to guard against the filing of false delinquencies.
Sidebar: Software to the Rescue
Instead of wasting days poring over every file and software package on your hard drive, you can buy software that automates that process. The following four packages track down Y2K problems. In a few cases, they'll even fix problems while you take a meeting.
For Down and Dirty Details: Norton 2000
Symantec's Norton 2000 touches all of the major Y2K bases. It tests a computer's BIOS chip, as well as common applications and personal data files. And although it won't correct date problems in your database files, it will tell you exactly what could go wrong. It even includes an update feature that connects you to an online list of Y2K-related bugs.
Norton really excels at flushing out Y2K bugs in database and spreadsheet files that are generated by programs like Access, dBase, Excel, FoxPro, Lotus 1-2-3, Paradox, and Quattro Pro. It even digs deep into formulas and macros that you have written yourself — including those that you may have forgotten about.
Coordinates: $49.95. Norton 2000, Symantec Corp., www.symantec.com
For a Complete Computer Checkup: 2000 Toolbox
While Norton 2000 can go over the top with its detailed reports, Network Associates's 2000 ToolBox tries to demystify the Y2K-testing process by dealing with big-ticket items only. Like Norton 2000, 2000 ToolBox tests software and data files, as well as a system's BIOS. In hardware tests, though, this utility sometimes won't tell you exactly what's wrong.
When testing software, 2000 ToolBox is not as thorough as Norton 2000. But it does cover all major problems, and it even suggests remedies (like using a four-digit year in spreadsheets). A bonus: It also includes links to the software manufacturers' Web sites.
Coordinates: $29.95. 2000 ToolBox, Network Associates Inc., www.nai.com
For No-Fuss Hardware Help: PCfix 2000
PCfix 2000 does just one thing — it diagnoses and repairs BIOS problems — but it does that one thing very well.
As soon as your computer boots up, PCfix identifies the correct century and notifies the computer's BIOS chip. When PCfix completes its mission, it gets out of the way (unlike some programs, which can cause problems when they remain in memory). If you're using a nonstandard operating system, such as OS/2 or DOS, PCfix is a good choice, since it works with those systems as well as it does with Windows 95, 98, and NT.
Coordinates: $74.95. PCfix 2000, the About Time Group, www.pcfix2000.com
For Complete Testing and Online Advice: Check 2000 PC Deluxe
As the name implies, Check 2000 tries to check nearly everything on your computer, including its BIOS chip, its operating system, your applications, and your data files. The package uses a wizard (an interactive help utility) to guide you through the testing process.
If Check 2000 encounters a bad BIOS, it will offer a fix. When it runs into date-dependent applications and files, it will advise you on how to patch them. It will also notice if your Windows system is set (incorrectly) to accept the two-digit date format. And if you need more information than the program delivers, go to the Check 2000 Web site: It's packed with enough detail to satisfy even Type-A geeks.
Coordinates: $49.95. Check 2000 PC Deluxe, Greenwich Mean Time, www.gmt-uta.com
Contributing Editor John R. Quain (www.j-q.com) appears regularly on CBS News's "Up to the Minute."