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ISSUE 482: The high tech office

January 19-25 1999


PC users need to look at three levels to make it through Y2K unscathed

Well, since we're now into 1999, the last year when we can get away with starting our cheques with "19," let's take a deep breath and see if we can cut through some of the rumours and fears surrounding the so-called Y2K Crisis, Year 2000 Bug or what-have-you.

While a huge number of news stories have tried to explain the Y2K situation, most have focused either on big corporate mainframe computers or on tiny, embedded systems -- chips hardwired into cars, elevators, machinery, medical equipment and so forth.

But most of us interact with personal computers at work or at home. What effect will the change of dates have on them? Should we be worried? Should we put off purchases of personal computer hardware or software?

The Y2K change can affect our computer systems on one or more of three different levels. First, there's hardware and the computer's operating system. Computers keep track of the time and date, using this information in a variety of different ways.

On a higher level, we run software applications; some of these were written in a way that assumes that only the final two digits of the year are important. This can cause problems in the switch from (19)99 to (20)00.

Finally, regardless of the state of your hardware, operating systems and applications, we all have data -- stored files that we've created or modified. Many spreadsheet and database files list and sort information by date. If the files were set up to list years with only two digits, they will probably need to be revised if we want to keep using them at this time next year (or if they make calculations that take future dates into account).

As a result of all these different levels, there's no simple answer to the question "Will my PC have problems with the year 2000?" so we'll have to take it one step at a time.

The first problem for many machines is at the level of the system clock. Some machines simply will not properly recognize the change from 11:59 p.m., December 31, 1999, to 12:00 a.m., January 1, 2000. Instead, they will shift to some other year: 1980, for example. (Note that this is not a problem for any Apple Macintosh, though they can be affected by software problems just as easily as PCs.)

System clocks are controlled by the system's BIOS, a relatively small amount of permanent memory that controls the computer's lowest-level functions. Virtually all new computers have Y2K-aware BIOSes and should not be affected by this dimension of the problem. Older computers have to be dealt with case by case.

Many relatively recent computers can be fixed with a BIOS patch -- a small piece of software, typically downloadable from the manufacturer's Web site. Look for indications that your BIOS can be "flashed" or upgraded, either in the machine's manual or on the Setup menu (obtainable by pressing a key -- often Delete, at the very beginning of the system startup).

If your BIOS can't be flashed, your machine may still continue to be usable, if it's not left running at the end of next year. When you first turn it on next year, press the key to go to the Setup menu and manually set the correct date. According to North Shore computer consultant Bill Drake, "Normally, that's all there is to it."

However, he notes, "some older BIOS versions have trouble properly working with date-arithmetic on dates above 2000, even if their date-rollover is adjusted manually." Drake recommends that older machines be checked individually. To do so, he suggests that concerned PC-owners start with a visit to Microsoft's Y2K Web page: There they'll find a set of links to (non-Microsoft) resources. Check the page for the list under the heading BIOS, click the down arrow to see the list and scroll to YMark2000. This lets you download this free utility from the independent, and well-respected, NSTL testing laboratory.

What you get is a tiny (24-kb) file, which extracts the actual utility: 2000.exe.

To run it, you'll need to boot to a DOS prompt, type 2000 and press Enter. The program will check whether your system's real-time clock works correctly, whether it properly rolls over from 1999 to 2000 and whether it supports the next couple of leap years. (2000 is an exception to the rule that years ending in '00 aren't leap years.)

If your PC's hardware can work with next year's dates, you're ready to move to the next level. More next week. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan