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Remember those debates about when the millennium really begins? Some people said 2000. Others preferred 2001. These days, when people talk millennium, they're likely worrying about the millennium bug.

This mother of all computer snafus is a magnet for doomsayers. They warn that on Jan. 1, 2000--or even before--utilities will quit delivering electricity. Planes will disappear from radar screens. And the government will cease printing Social Security checks.
      All this because the two-digit shorthand many computers use to indicate the year will confound them. Does "00" mean "1900" or "2000?"
      Chaos? Havoc? Calamity? Those aren't our words. They come from people who get paid to really understand computers.
      The bad news is that many of those grim prophecies could be borne out--if programmers do not take precautions. The good news is that your personal computer is not likely to suffer much unless it acts as a terminal for a vulnerable mainframe system.
      The millennium bug--a.k.a. the year 2000 bug--has its roots deep in computer history. Way back in the 1950s and '60s, storage space was precious and programmers were encouraged to shave storage needs by using two digits for the year. So, most early mainframe programming languages used "68" to stand for "1968."


You'll be hearing
from your credit union,
if you havenít already,
about its response
to the challenge.















Anything that
calculates--like
tax or finance
software--may have
problems at the
changeover.
Sneaky shorthand
When computer code had an expected life of a decade or less, the shorthand worked fine. But software was expensive. Once it worked, companies were reluctant to replace the core functions. Instead, they patched, extended, and updated the code. Why are so many utility bills printed in UPPERCASE? Because the software first was written for systems that couldn't print lowercase.
      Today, with the new millennium less than two years away, software and computer manufacturers--and all industries that rely on computers--have begun issuing warnings and frantically upgrading their systems. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, plans to repair its software--and to replace its computers, just in case the upgrade fails. EDS, the computer services firm, estimates that the company's year 2000 fixes will cost $144 million. Nobody knows the total price tag for the massive upgrades, but as usual, prevention will be cheaper than cure.
      Like the rest of the financial services world, credit unions are hastening to assess, upgrade, and repair their systems. With guidance from the National Credit Union Administration, credit unions are engaged in a four-step process to ensure that member service is not compromised. You'll be hearing from your credit union, if you havenít already, about its response to the challenge.
      But none of this industry-wide scramble says anything about the PC in your home office or rec room. What will happen to it when 2000 arrives?
      Probably nothing. Right, nothing. No calamity. No collapse. No fireworks. In fact, a Home & Family Finance Online investigation has found plenty of reasons for PC owners to rest easy. "I wouldn't be that nervous about personal computers," says Kathy Walsh, assistant vice president for systems development at CUNA & Affiliates, Madison, Wis. But, Walsh says, if you house software on your PC that's critical to your daily life--checkbook balancing, personal business, or financial planning software--you should test it.
      And, for the most part, Apple Macintoshes are immune to the problem, because their machines understand dates through at least 2040. Users of other machines can take some simple steps to assure that everything will work normally, although they may have to upgrade software that is long in tooth.
      PCs use dates in several ways, such as putting creation dates on files. Some programs, such as scheduling, finance, and database programs, rely on dates. Spreadsheets, for example, use dates to figure interest.
      Other programs have no date functions, or use them for convenience. Word processing programs, for example, automatically can date correspondence by "asking" the operating system what date it is.
      The operating system is the basic software that underlies all the applications you use. The year 2000 problem mainly concerns the operating system. Microsoft, the maker of MS-DOS and Windows, the predominant PC operating systems, vows it can handle year 2000.


Play with the display
MS-DOS and Windows both store dates in four-digit format. But if you only see two year digits on the screen, Microsoft suggests making all four digits visible. Then it's probably wise to test how your trusty computer will perform during the transition to year 2000.

Caution: Before monkeying with your computer, it's sensible to back up your data. You have been doing that religiously anyway, right?

      To make a Windows-based computer display all four year digits, open the control panel called "regional settings" (not the temptingly named "date/time" control panel). Press the "short date" tab, and change the year setting to "yyyy." Now when you input two year digits ("98"), the screen will display all four digits ("1998"). This assures you that dates are being recorded correctly. If the wrong century appears on the screen, you can correct the entry by typing all four year digits.
      When you're finished
      with the tests, return
      the control panels to
      today's date and time.


Best to test
The second step is to test whether your computer can make the transition to 2000. In Windows, go to the "date/time" control panel. (In MS-DOS computers, type "date" at the C: prompt.) Advance the date to 12/31/1999, and the time to 12:58 p.m. Shut down for three minutes and restart. Open the control panel and check the date. If it reads 2000, you're out of the woods. If not, set the year to 2000 manually. If everything now works normally, you'll need to do this manually after the millennium arrives.

Caution: If you have licensed software, the license might "expire" when you advance the date to test. The problem should disappear once you reset the date to 1998. And licensed software is mainly an institutional arrangement, so it should affect few individuals.


Bogus BIOS
If your tests show that your computer will not work in the new millennium, your problem could reside in the Basic Input Output System (BIOS). This software acts like a phone company for the operating system, routing calls and doing go-fer work. Microsoft says some BIOS will not accept a year 2000 date, but expects the problem to be fixed with a forthcoming release of Windows. Otherwise, you may have to consult your computer or operating system manufacturer.
      When you're finished with the tests, return the control panels to today's date and time.
      That should take care of the hardware. But software is another matter. As Walsh notes, "Anything that calculates--like tax or finance software--may have problems at the changeover." Best advice: Contact the software manufacturer for assurance that the package will work in 2000.
      Once you're satisfied that your computer will work in year 2000, you can return to the important issue: When does the millennium--and, hence, the big party--actually start? Answer: Because the first calendar year was 1 (not zero), the second century started in 101. So the third millennium actually will start in 2001.
      Strangely, history records no computer crashes when the second millennium began.
      


The World Wide Web is alive with year 2000 sites. For users of personal computers, these are the most important.


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