For a moment, forget about planes falling from the sky. Forget about power outages and other millennial mayhem caused by the Year 2000 computer glitch. It's time to think about the personal computer humming in your family room.
If you believe the Year 2000 date recognition problem affects only antiquated mainframes, think again. Greenwich Mean Time, British maker of Year 2000 repair software, estimates that 93 percent of PCs built before 1996 will have problems ringing in the millennium.
Even if your PC is barely out of the box, don't gloat yet. Eleven percent of computers built this year may have problems recognizing the date change, according to the Y2K consultant. Last week, Microsoft announced that Windows 98 - which it touted as impervious to the Y2K bug - may display dates 'D incorrectly in rare situations.
Just how bad is the problem for average PC users?
"We're not saying the earth is going to fall on people," says Dana Prussoff of Symantec Corp., publisher of the popular Norton Utilities software. "But it's a little more serious if people are using their PCs for a home business or stock tracking."
There are three potential trouble spots: hardware, software and data.
To understand how the Y2K problem could affect your hardware, consider the convoluted way a Windows-based PC tells time. Your computer contains a battery-powered clock on its main circuit board that ticks off the time and date even when your computer is turned off.
The clock records only the last two digits of the year (the "98" in 1998) while it tucks the first two digits representing the century (the "19" in 1998) in a tiny section of memory known as the "century byte."
When you flick the power switch, a tiny program embedded in a chip called the BIOS is summoned to life. The BIOS, or Basic Input Output System, tells your operating system and computer hardware (the keyboard, monitor, etc.) how to communicate with one another.
The BIOS calculates the date by fetching the last two digits of the year from the real-time clock and the first two digits from the century byte. Then it delivers this information to Windows or whatever operating system your PC happens to be running. Windows, in turn, passes the date to application programs such as word processors, spreadsheets and finance managers.
Here's where the millennium can foul things up: The century byte doesn't change. So when the clock strikes midnight Dec. 31, 1999, the real-time clock will flip from 99 to 00, but the century byte will stay put at 19. When you flip on your PC the next morning, a faulty BIOS will think the year is 1900. But there's a twist. The year will register on your screen as 1980, since that's the beginning of time according to Microsoft.
A good BIOS, one that has been modified to deal with the millennium bug, will notice the error and quickly replace the "19" in the century byte with a "20."
How do you know if you have a good BIOS or a rotten one? First, check your computer maker's Web site. Dell, for example, allows you to enter the make and model of your PC to find out whether it's OK. Visit www.dell.com/year2000.
On the Internet you'll also find several free programs that will automatically test your computer's BIOS and tell you if it can handle the millennium data change. Try PC Magazine's Year 2000 Web site (www.pcmag.com/y2k) for a complete list.
If your PC is afflicted with the Y2K bug, you have to exterminate it. In some cases you can do the job by running a program that changes the BIOS. In the worst case, you may have to replace the BIOS chip itself - a job for a competent technician. Either way, call the PC manufacturer or check the company's Web site.
Once you've solved the hardware problem, you're still not in the clear.
"Software is a bigger problem," says Michael S. Lasky, senior associate editor at PC World magazine (www.pcworld.com), which offers an in-depth look at the Year 2000 glitch in the issue that hits newsstands tomorrow.
According to Lasky, you have to consider all your software - everything from your operating system to games such as Quake. If your PC is running Windows 3.1 or earlier, you may be out of luck. Microsoft is not offering a Y2K update to that operating system, nor are most software makers going to fix aging software that runs on it. Your best bet may be upgrading to Windows 98 or buying a new machine.
Windows 95/98 users have more help available. If you use Windows 95, you'll have to upgrade the File Manager, which was inherited from earlier versions of Windows and won't display dates after Dec. 31, 1999. Get a software fix at http://support.microsoft.com/support/downloads.
Windows 98 users can find a fix for its recently announced Y2K ills at http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com/ or by calling 1-800-363-2896 for a free CD-ROM.
The final hiding place for the Y2K bug is the data stored on your hard drive, especially in spreadsheets and databases. If you're in the habit of entering two-digit dates into your spreadsheet - such as "12/6/98" instead of "12/6/1998" - you may have problems.
When you enter a two-digit date, spreadsheets or financial software programs are forced to make assumptions about which century you mean. They do this by comparing the date to a "pivot year." The year is different for each program. The popular spreadsheet Excel, for example, will assume that two-digit year entries from "00" through "29" represent the years 2000 to 2029, while entries from "30" to "99" represent 1930 to 1999.
You'll have to comb through your critical spreadsheet and database files to find any that contain abbreviated dates and replace them with dates that contain the full, four-digit year, a tedious and probably impossible chore. So you may want to buy a program to do it for you.
Two of the best are Check 2000 PC Deluxe (Greenwich Mean Time-UTA, $59.95) and Norton 2000 (Symantec, $44.95). These programs not only comb your data to find potential Year 2000 date conflicts, but also check and repair your BIOS. In addition, they will examine every program on your machine to ferret out TTC known Y2K bugs.
"For people who are running a small business, I would say, yes, buy one [of these programs]. If it's a home machine and you're using it for games and word processing and the Internet, there's probably no need," says Lasky.
Macintosh users probably won't need such programs. Apple claims every one of its Macs will recognize dates to the year 29,940.
However earlier Apple models such as the Apple II, still used in schools around the country, may have date-related problems. For more information, see Apple's Year 2000 Web site www.apple.com/about/year2000/index.html.
Other Online Y2K Resources:
Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com/year2000)
Intel Corp. (www.intel.com/support/year2000/)
Pub Date: 12/14/98