BOSTON — By now, you've heard of the impending computer calamity called the "Year 2000 Problem." When 1/1/00 rolls around (it'll be a Saturday), some computers will get confused. They'll think it's 1900 instead of 2000. That miscalculation could foul up everything from interest payments to government benefits - worldwide.
It's costing billions of dollars to clean up the problem. And the real blame lies with the people who program them. And ourselves. Every time we abbreviate a year to two digits, we introduce an imprecision. Sure, everybody knows 5/7/98 means today. But another 5/7/98 will pop up a century from now.
That's why Jason Matusow, year 2000 strategy manager for Microsoft, makes it a habit to use all four digits of the year, even on paper documents. "It's not easy," he concedes, especially when writing checks.
Such precision could prove especially useful for computer users. Their hardware and software will make fewer mistakes at century's end, if they consistently type four-digit years.
If home users take the following steps, they should be fine. (Even if their machines prove not to be year 2000 compliant, they'll still receive e-mail, create documents, and do all the other tasks that don't depend on an accurate date.)
1. Check your hardware. New machines probably won't have a problem. (Compaq, for one, guarantees all its machines bought since Oct. 7, 1997, are year 2000 compliant.)
The easiest way to check is to call your computer dealer. Computer manufacturers are also making the information available and offering free fixes. Compaq includes a special Year 2000 section on its Web site (www.compaq.com/year2000). So do Dell (www.us.dell.com/year2000), Gateway (www.gateway-2000.com), and IBM (www.ibm.com/IBM/year2000).
Incidentally, if you own a Macintosh, relax. Even the original Mac was engineered to handle dates up to 2040. Current models can accurately display any date up to AD 29940!
More advanced users can test their own machines. Some experts suggest setting the computer's clock ahead to Dec. 31, 1999, and seeing what happens after midnight. But I prefer a nifty free program from NSTL that tests the machine more safely and thoroughly. Download it from the company's Web site (www.nstl.com/html/ymark_2000.html).
Advanced users craving even more nitty-gritty should visit the Year 2000 Web site (www.year2000.com).
2. Check your operating system (the basic software that runs your computer). Again, Macs are fine. But Windows - even the current version called Windows 95 - contains some date inconsistencies. You can fix these problems by downloading software files from Microsoft's Year 2000 Resource Center (www.microsoft.com/ithome/topics/year2k) or waiting for the next version of the software, Windows 98.
3. Finally, take a good look at your other software, especially any custom programs you've written as well as spreadsheet, database, and personal finance programs such as Quicken. Old versions of Quicken - for both Macs and IBM-compatibles - can't handle the 2000 switchover. Newer versions, especially Version 6 and Quicken 98, can. (See www.intuit.com/support/year2000.html for details.)
And with all these programs, remember to type in all four digits of the year. Precision counts. In every millennium.
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