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The challenge of Y2K: finding a clean shirt

By Craig SavoyeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 27, 1999



It's Saturday night, Jan. 1. You take your spouse and friends to dinner, but the restaurant can't find the reservation you made back in the old millennium. Hungry, you go to leave the parking lot but can't. The security gate isn't Y2K compliant.

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Monday morning at the dry cleaners they swear your face looks familiar, but they can't find your shirts. And when you stop at the paint store to pick up your order for that kitchen project, you get four gallons of fuchsia instead of eggshell.

Could it be that the Y2K bug won't mean the end of the world come Jan. 1, just that you won't ever see your laundry again? Should the survivalist in each of us forget about batteries and bottled water and stock up on dress shirts and flat latex?

It may well be time to start sweating the small stuff. While the US government and large companies have declared most of their computers capable of distinguishing 2000 from 1900, confidence is far shakier when it comes to small businesses.

"We are still very concerned about small businesses that are operating on a fix-on-failure basis," says John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. "The worst-case scenario is that some will go out of business."

The millennium bug, or Y2K problem, refers to the inability of the internal calendars in some older computers to distinguish between the year 2000 and the year 1900, with the possible consequence being a malfunction of those systems.

A study by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), based on October survey data, indicates that more than half of small businesses with Y2K exposure plan to ignore the threat. That amounts to as many as 1.5 million employers, a figure that has actually risen since April. Many small-business owners who said then that they would be taking millennial remedial action have now apparently abandoned their debugging plans.

Chalk up the inaction to complacency rather than lack of credit. Of $500 million the US set aside for loans to help small businesses cope with Y2K, $495 million has gone begging. But waiting until the Y2K bug bites could prove to be a costly strategy.

"If you're a small business that has opted not to address the problem, who are you going to call?" asks William Dennis, a senior research fellow at the NFIB. "All of the consultants are tied up with the large corporations. And if you do find someone, you'll pay through the nose."

Other experts warn that demand for software fixes may outstrip supply, resulting in months-long delays in repairing systems and putting a financial strain on the very businesses - small ones - least able to deal with such a crisis.

Nevertheless, Main Street is not fretting much.

"What people seem to miss is that this is a software problem, not a hardware problem," says Kimberly Rich, a manager at A-Z computers in St. Louis. "If you're not compliant, you have to type in the date manually. Big deal. I think it's all a sales tactic."

Harry Strothkamp, owner of Strothkamp's, a paint and wall-covering store in Manchester, Mo., says conspiratorily, "To tell you the truth, it's a lot of malarkey."

He's not winging it, though. He pays a monthly fee to a California company that specializes in providing integrated hardware, software, and software support to companies in his industry. "They put in a new system a couple of months ago. Said we're compliant now." Mr. Strothkamp pauses as an automatic mixer rattles a paint can in the background. "All I can say is, I hope they're right."

Bill Pieper, a second-generation owner of Piepers Unfinished Furniture in St. Louis, has not taken any specific steps toward Y2K compliance except to obtain assurances from the manufacturer of the firm's computer - as well as the husband of an employee who installed recently upgraded software - that the system is safe.

"I guess we'll see what happens on Jan. 2. Our worst-case scenario isn't too bad. If the system completely crashes, we'll have to do a physical inventory, but we're planning to do one in February anyway. Oh," adds Mr. Pieper, "and I suppose we'd get a new computer."

Small businesses are not the only ones doing the Y2K ol. Many schools, health-care facilities, and local governments are also taking a wait-and-crash approach. A survey earlier this year found that 25 percent of counties have no Y2K plan. And only 37 percent of the nation's 911 call centers were Y2K compliant as of June 1999.

End-of-millennium haste to put things in order worries some Y2K experts, who say the late rush leaves scant opportunity for testing fixes and no room for schedule slippage.

On Jan. 2, will the consumer be left holding the wrong or empty bag? "Consumers have alternatives," says Mr. Koskinen. "As a general rule they can take their business elsewhere."

And kiss those shirts goodbye?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society