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Computerease: Your Home Computer and the Year 2000, by Thomas Shinder M.D., M.C.S.E.

It's already September 1999. Maybe you have noticed increased coverage in your newspaper or local radio shows regarding the year 2000 and all the anticipated problems related to computers as a result of the Y2K dilemma.

Much of the coverage has been related to the effects on the stock market, the banking system, point-of-service delivery systems, and food distribution. While these are important subjects, let's take a look at the situation close to home. What about your computers? What will be the effects of the year 2000 date change on your computers, and what can you do to prevent data loss and computer malfunction?

In order to correct your potential problems, we've got to understand what is most likely to be affected and why.

There are four basic areas we need to consider when dealing with the Year 2000 issues and personal computers:

  1. The Hardware
  2. The Operating System
  3. The Applications
  4. The Data

The Hardware

You may have seen, or even been visited by a Y2K computer consultant who has done an assesment of your computer for the year 2000. If you are one of the unlucky majority, that Y2K "expert" has taken a hard look at your computer's BIOS (binary input/output system).

The BIOS has many functions, but one of them is to keep track of time via a device called the "real-time clock." All operations on a computer look to this real time clock to know what the date and time are. Computers older than mid 1997 are likely to have a BIOS that will not recognize the year 2000 as such, and will think that the year is 1980 or 1970 or 1900.

You must be sure your system BIOS can handle the year 2000. But, there are other hardware components in your computer that have BIOS too!

Your sound card has a BIOS of its own. Music, as you can imagine, is very time-dependent. Your Network Card also has its own BIOS, and network communcations are also time dependent. Your hard drives also have their own BIOS, and may have time-dependent functions built into them as well.

In doing your hardware Y2K Assessment, all hardware components must be assessed. A good rule of thumb is that if the component was manufactured before 1998, there's a good chance that it may fail during or after the date change.

The Operating System

What is an Operating System? It is essentially a set of software commands that are used in order to communicate with and control the hardware on the computer. The Operating System controls the hard drives, the floppy drive, the memory, the sound card, the network card, the scanner, the modem; all the internal operating mechanisms of the computer.

Examples of operating systems include: DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, OS/2, UNIX, Linux, and many others.

The majority of home users will be using one form of the Microsoft family of operating systems, so we'll focus on those.

The Bad News is that DOS will die in the Year 2000. DOS was not designed to handle the change-over and DOS based programs will no longer function correctly.

Many people are still using Windows 3.1, especially in the International Market. Windows 3.1 was very functional, and many have found no compelling reason to upgrade, or do not have the financial resources to purchase Windows 95 or 98.

The Bad News for Windows 3.1 users is that it will also not function properly after the Year 2000. This is because Windows 3.1 is essentially just a pretty face put on DOS, and as we've seen, DOS will NOT work on Jan. 1, 2000 and thereafter.

Windows 95 and Windows 98 users have it a little better. While neither operating system can be considered completely Y2K compliant, you will still be able to start your computer and do most of your tasks unimpeded by the operating system.

Windows NT is a corporate operating system that is meant to provide users with security, stability and accountability. Windows NT is considered Y2K compliant after some changes are made. You will be able to do just about all of your work in Windows NT without worrying about the operating system.

Microsoft has a comprehensive website addressing Y2k issues. Check out: http://www.microsoft.com/y2k

The Applications

All right, you've checked out your hardware and it tests out OK. You've decided to move up to Windows NT to ensure that your operating system is reliable and unencumbered by millenium issues. Now you've got to think about the programs you use.

Do you use Quicken to manage your checkbook? Excel97 to keep the company's accounts in order? Access97 to manage that-can't-do-without customer database?

The programs you use must also be Y2K compliant. If the programs are not compliant, then even if your hardware and software are OK, you will still have problems.

Assess the programs that you use on a frequent basis, and assess which of those that you extensively rely on. If you find there are a handful of programs that you absolutely depend upon in order to manage your life or your business, you must make sure that they are Y2K ready.

How do you find out if they are ready? You must check with the manufacturer. First check out their website, and see if they have a Y2K statement and list of issues related to your program. If your program is REALLY Mission-Critical (you can't live without it), then you are best served by talking to a real live person (RLP) and getting written confirmation of your conversation.

The reason why I recommend personal contact in mission critical situations, is that if you suffer significant financial loss, there may be liablity issues at hand, and you want to be ready for those in order to recoup losses you may incur.

The Data

Your final consideration is your data. Data represents the files that you've created and saved in your computer. Examples would be a Word97 document file, or an Excel 97 spreadsheet or an Access97 database.

Some people believe that if they simply upgrade to Office2000 they will be covered, and that the spreadsheet they created in Excel95 will be all right. Not true. If any of your data files continue two digit dates, then you are at significant risk. Just upgrading your programs isn't going to fix the situation. You are going to have to actually look inside your important files and make sure they do not contain any two digit date references.

There are some specialized programs that will "scan" your data files for you and confirm whether they contain dangerous two digit date references.

Be prepared. If you depend on your computer for anything important in your life, make sure that it will continue to work for you into the next century. Be proactive and prevent issues before they arise.


Thomas W. Shinder, M.D., M.C.P., is a neurologist-turned-computer systems engineer who practiced medicine in Texas, Oregon and Arkansas before moving to his present home in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.

E-mail Thomas at: tshinder@shinder.net


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