Are Your Computers Y2K Compatible?

Almost every day, when you open a newspaper, watch television, turn on the radio or flip through a magazine, there’s news about Y2K, also known as the Year 2000 Bug or the Millennium Bug. What is it and, perhaps more importantly, how does it affect college administrators?

Chances are, you have heard about the events that could occur when we reach midnight on December 31, 1999 - changes that could affect our financial institutions, national defense, the IRS, mail service, businesses, household appliances and even our educational institutions.

What Is Y2K?

In simple terms, Y2K affects approximately 85 percent of IBM-compatible computers - an estimated 500 million machines. The problem actually dates back to the 1950s, when computers had limited memory and storage capacity. In an effort to conserve storage space, programmers represented date functions using only the last two digits of the year. For example, the year 1971 was stored as 71.

When these early programs (which are the building blocks for the current generation of programs) were being written, this was not an issue as no one had considered the turn of the century. However, as we approach the millennium, the results of this programming could be catastrophic because computers will not be able to change the century date from 19 to 20. The year, in the eyes of the computer, will change from 1999 to 1900. Consequently, in the year 2000, a person who was born in 1971 would not, according to computer logic, be 29 years old, rather he or she would be -71!

The good news is that, if you own or use a Macintosh computer, the Y2K problem is not an issue, as Macs already use a four-digit representation of year functions.

The Y2K problem is (and will continue to be) expensive to fix, due to the human capital that is required. This includes the use of programmers to diagnose and, when necessary, repair computers and update software. Another area that is expected to see a large amount of growth is litigation, as there are potential lawsuits directed against hardware and software companies when their products fail.

Exactly how expensive will the Y2K problem be? Lloyds of London estimates that, worldwide, Y2K costs could exceed one trillion dollars, while other knowledgeable parties put the ultimate legal costs closer to 1.5 trillion, which is roughly the size of the federal budget. If you want to know more about the cost, check out the source of this information: Are You at Risk? by Mehler and Moore at .

Are Your Computers Y2K Compatible?

Knowing if your computers and their applications are already Y2K compatible is the first step toward solving the problem. One resource is a program called Yes2K (available for downloading at ).

This program detects flaws in your computers that will cause problems if the computers are used after December 31, 1999. Specifically, it searches for flaws in the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS). (For our purposes, this is defined as the controller for the screen that allows you to enter the date, time, type of floppy and hard disks, etc.) It also detects flaws in the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS). (This chip is second in importance only to the main processor – CPU – of the computer. The BIOS chip tests all of the system components to ensure that they are working properly and facilitates transfer of data among peripherals.)

Even without using free software or buying expensive software, you can find out the Y2K readiness of the CMOS and BIOS of your computers. Follow these steps.

1. Insert a blank diskette into a computer’s floppy drive (you should use a fresh, formatted disk for each computer that you test, as this will ensure that there is no possibility of transmitting a boot sector virus to the hard drive).

2. Go to the DOS prompt. (For Windows 95 or 98 users, use the Restart the computer in MS-DOS mode option from the Shutdown dialog box you see when you choose Shutdown from the Start menu.)

3. At the DOS prompt, type FORMAT A:/S (creating a system disk with the necessary files to boot from the A: drive). When the computer prompts you with the question Format another (Y/N)?, type N, and press the return/enter key.

4. When the disk formatting has completed, shut down the machine (turn the power off, don’t just reboot). Leave the diskette in the drive.

5. Turn the power back on, and the PC will boot from the diskette you just created.

6. As the disk in the floppy drive boots the computer, you will be prompted to enter the date (mm-dd-yy). Enter 12-31-99, and press the return/enter key.

7. When the computer prompts you to enter the time, type 23:55:00 (this is military time for 11:55 p.m.) and press the return/enter key. Then turn the power off (don’t "warm boot"), remove the diskette from the drive, and wait at least 10 minutes.

8. Turn the power back on, and return to DOS mode as outlined in step two. At the C> prompt, type date. If Sat 01-01-2000 is displayed, your computer (though not necessarily all of the software on the machine) passes the Y2K test. If the date is displayed as Sat 01-01-00, the computer thinks that the date is Saturday, January 1, 1900, and does not pass the Y2K test. It is also possible that your computer will display another date and, if this is the case, the computer does not pass the Y2K test.

9. To finish testing and return your computer to the correct time, turn off the computer. Turn on the computer and return to DOS mode as outlined in step two. At the C> prompt type date and, when prompted to enter the date, type in the current date (mm-dd-yy) and press the return/enter key. When prompted to enter the time, type in the correct military time and press the return/enter key.

10. Turn off your computer. When you turn it back on, it will have the correct date and time.

What If?

If you are ready for the issues that you may encounter when you head into work on Monday, January 3, 2000, there is no need to panic. Keep in mind that the more you are able to do before December 31, 1999, the better prepared you are. For example, move data (or at least a backup copy of data) from computers that are not Y2K compliant to computers that are. By doing so, you minimize the risk of losing important information.

It is crucial to note that, even if your computers do pass the Y2K test, the software on them may not be Y2K compatible. Contact the vendors of the software in question, or consult the user manuals for the software. (If the vendors or the user manuals do not explicitly state that the software is Y2K compatible, do not assume that it is.)

If you find that your computers don’t pass the Y2K test, don’t despair; it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready for the scrap pile. If the computers are used only for word processing, connecting to the Internet, games or databases that are not date-sensitive (do not contain any fields that use the year function to compute data), then they are still usable. Simply go through the steps to set the date again, and enter a year that falls within a safe range (1995, for example). Note, however, that this will cause e-mail programs, calendars, personal information managers and other programs that display dates to show the incorrect date.

Dr. Steven Doellefeld is special assistant to the vice president of academic affairs at the University at Albany, N.Y.

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