Y2K

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When I wrote here about Y2K worries last year and again earlier this year, I promised a midyear update on how things are going. The short answer: Things look generally better than they did then, and it's becoming pretty clear that--excepting the possibility of a Y2K-induced recession--forecasts of large-scale, long-lasting, nationwide problems can be discounted. This doesn't mean that there won't be scattered problems; that they won't affect you, your company, and your family; or that some of those problems won't be serious. Some almost certainly will be.

But on the whole, consciousness about Y2K has been raised to a level sufficient to avoid most problems and to deal effectively with many of the remaining ones.

Until now, I've dealt here mainly with PC issues, such as BIOS and RTC (real-time clock) problems in PC hardware and software compliance. This is, after all, PC Magazine, so our focus is determinedly PC-centric. Most of the really pernicious computer-related Y2K problems, however, have been in older, larger systems, all the way back to COBOL code written 20 and 30 years ago for now-aging mainframes.

And it's time, I think, to shift from a focus on our computers and software to the larger societal issues with Y2K. It doesn't much matter whether your PC is working properly if you can't get to work because of fouled-up train switches, out-of-order traffic lights, shut-down public transit systems, no electric or phone service, or inoperable elevators. It will matter a very great deal whether you and your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers have potable water, food, or heat on that key turn-of-the-millennium, winter weekend--and maybe, if you're unlucky enough to live in an area with persistent problems, for a while after that.

First, though, a review of where we stand now on PCs and Y2K.

In the PC world, we've been pretty fortunate: PCs shipping for the past year have had Y2K-compliant hardware. Beyond that, most PCs built since the mid-nineties are pretty easy to fix by replacing a BIOS chip, or sometimes simply by running a software patch. (You can find an excellent free PC BIOS test-and-maybe-fix utility, drawn from Symantec's top-grade software package Norton 2000, at www.symantec.com/sabu/n2000/fs_retail.html.) Older PCs remain problematic, but frankly, given the advances in PCs since 1994 or 1995, you shouldn't be running them for any critical work anyway. It's time to upgrade, for lots of good reasons beyond Y2K worries.

In PC networking, there are a fair number of noncompliant devices out there. The good news is that most networking products either don't know or don't care about the date, or are running on a "safe" calendar that begins in the 1970s. But even some very recent networking devices don't properly handle the leap-year date of February 29, 2000, which somehow got overlooked (don't ask). Check with your network-hardware vendor. Some have fixes; many offer trade-in deals (usually lowballed, though) for fairly recent noncompliant products.

In PC software, it's a mixed bag. Even products as recent as Microsoft's nearly ubiquitous Windows 95 and Office 97 have Y2K issues, though they may not affect you. You can find patches for many of those problems at www.microsoft.com. Windows 98 and the new Office 2000 suite and its components are said by Microsoft to be Y2K-problem-free.

For any PC software package you rely on, check with the vendor. PC software developers have, to be sure, put out some pretty vague and unreliable statements over the past year or so about their Y2K problems. But in the past six months, there's been a great improvement in the quantity, accuracy, and usefulness of vendor-provided Y2K-compatibility information. Check the Web sites of your key software's publishers.

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