April 1998


Be Still My Beating Heart --

This Is A Crisis?
Debunking the Year 2000 Bug

READY FOR some good bug news?

For most PC users, the much ballyhooed "Year 2000 bug" is right up there with Bill Clinton's sex life on the Grossly Overrated List.

The Year 2000 (Y2K) bug refers to a variety of date-related problems computer hardware and software may have when the first day of the year 2000 dawns.

That's not to say there won't be some computer grief on January 1, 2000, but the vast majority of it will be visited on older mainframe and minicomputers running specialized custom programs.

In the PC realm, there are really only two issues you have to think about, one at the BIOS level and one at the application level.

BIOS LEVEL

Want to see how truly minor the Y2K problem is for most PC users?

OK, here's just about the scariest possible Y2K bug blowup at the BIOS level: the date on your machine gets changed to January 1, 1980, and you have to manually set the machine to the correct date (through Control Panel in Windows 95).

Be still my beating heart! Seriously, though, at the BIOS level the Y2K bug is a Severity 4 item, which is to say the next to the least serious possible on BugNet's rating scale.

It may cause some inconvenience (especially for network administrators overseeing large numbers of PCs), but that's all it is -- an inconvenience.

Most people will probably just remind themselves on January 1, 2000 to check the date the way they check the clock when Daylight Savings Time goes on.

However, if you want to test the Y2K compatibility of your computer's BIOS before the fateful hour, there are several ways.

Directions for manually testing your BIOS's Y2K compatibility are available at Robert Hilliard's Y2K PC BIOS Page at http://www.tyler.net/tyr7020/y2kinput.htm. A popular automatic test that runs within Windows 95 is available at http://www.y2000fix.com. Y2000fix.com also provides software to ease your PC through the millennial rollover automatically.

Another good source of Y2K info is Computer Currents columnist (and Quarterdeck TuneUp.com product manager) Jim Aspinwall's Y2K Resource Page at http://www.raisin.com/year2000/.

In BugNet's own tests, it appears the following rule generally holds true:

  • If you bought your PC after the spring of 1996, you're probably OK.
  • If you bought it before the spring of 1996, you probably have some degree of Y2K BIOS incompatibility.

APPLICATION LEVEL

An entirely different Y2K problem exists at the application level.

If your PC runs on January 1, 2000, your programs will run too -- but occasionally date-related functions in some programs may not behave entirely as expected.

On it's Y2K compliance page is at http://www.microsoft.com/year2000/, Microsoft identifies several of its programs that may have Y2K problems of one sort or another, including Internet Explorer 3.x and 4.x, Access 2.0, Word for MS-DOS 5.0 and Office Professional 4.3, as well as Windows 95, Windows for Workgroups 3.11, NT Server 4.0, NT Workstation 4.0.

However, the programs most likely to be affected are popular spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, and Corel Quattro, but ONLY if the user entered dates in two-digit form.

The reason is that each spreadsheet has its own formula for converting two-digit dates. Excel assumes that any two-digit date up to 28 should be prefaced with 19, while every two-digit date above this should be prefaced with 20.

Quattro makes the century cutoff at 50/51, and 1-2-3 assumes that every two-digit number refers to a 20th century date, as do older versions of Excel.

A good discussion of the two-digit date issue in Excel, 1-2-3, Quattro, along with Microsoft Access and Lotus Approach, is available on CMP TechWeb at http://www.techweb.com/wire/story/y2k/
TWB19980330S0004.

According to Computer Reseller News, here's how the three spreadsheets may interpret a few different two-digit dates:

Two-digit Date Excel 1-2-3 Quattro
28 2028 2028 2028
29 1929 1929 2029
50 1950 1950 2050
51 1951 1951 1951

Clearly, the two-digit date problem is not going to affect a lot of people, but it does have the capacity to screw up some spreadsheet projections.

Even so, this isn't really a bug at all -- just a discrepancy in how competing programs handle date related issues.

SO THERE. You just sat through the Y2K bug equivalent of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Are you scared stiff? Are you mildly alarmed? Are you even awake?

We at BugNet see hundreds of more serious problems every month, but somehow sloppy programming and bad design don't inspire the millennial mania.

That's OK, though. It's nice every now and then to have good news to report.

-- Bruce Brown


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* Here's Bruce Brown's BugNet Memoir...
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