Is your PC ready for the year 2000?

[Dana H. Schultz]

Corporate IT Directors are trembling. The dreaded Year 2000 ("Y2K") problem is upon them, and there is no escape. Decades ago, when computer memory was very expensive, programs were written to minimize the amount of data that had to be stored. Typically, only the last two digits of a year (e.g., "98") are retained; the first two digits ("19") are assumed.

Amazingly enough, much of this old software is still in use. Unless it is repaired or replaced, it will stop functioning properly in 2000.

What about PCs?

While mainframes have received the greatest attention, there are potential problems regarding DOS and Windows PCs, too. (According to Apple, Macintosh PCs have always been Y2K-compliant.)

A PC gets information about the current year from two locations. The hardware clock tracks the last two digits of the year ("00" through "99"). The first two digits are maintained by the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System). When the operating system or an application asks the BIOS for the current date, the BIOS assembles and provides the four-digit year.

National Software Testing Laboratory (www.nstl.com) specializes in testing PC and network hardware and software. Their free YMark2000 software examines three functions: hardware clock compatibility with the Motorola MC146818 standard; real-time progression from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000; recognition and support of leap years from 2000 through 2009.

Test results

I tested four PCs of different vintages to see which problems, if any, would arise. All four passed the clock-compatibility and leap-year tests. However, only one passed the real-time progression test. Here are the details.

PC #1: 266-megahertz Pentium II clone purchased in early 1998 - Passed the Jan. 1, 2000, progression test. This PC is ready for the year 2000.

PC #2: 133-megahertz Pentium with MMX clone purchased in late 1996 - Failed the progression test. Fortun-ately, this PC is running Windows95, which (like WindowsNT 4.0) compensates for BIOS limitations. So this PC also will be ready for the year 2000.

PC #3: 100-megahertz 486DX/4 Dell Latitude notebook purchased in early 1996 - Same result as PC #2.

PC #4: 16-megahertz 386SX Packard Bell Legend desktop purchased too long ago for anyone to remember - Failed the progression test. This PC is running Windows 3.1, which will not compensate for BIOS limitations. If the PC still is in service when the year 2000 arrives, we can use the DOS date command to set the proper date; from that point on, the date will be maintained properly for the remainder of the century.

The bottom line

So here are the likely scenarios for most readers: If you have a PC running Windows95 or WindowsNT 4.0, you should be in good shape - even if the BIOS is not up-to-date, the operating system should pick up the slack.

If you have a PC running Windows 3.1 or DOS, you should perform the following test: Set the date to 01-01-2000.

Reboot, then see whether the date is still 01-01-2000.

If so, you will only need to set the date once when year 2000 comes.

If not, you will need to buy a new PC.

A future column will discuss Y2K compliance for PC application software.

Dana H. Shultz is an Oakland-based lawyer, certified management consultant and speaker specializing in office technology and online marketing. He may be reached by e-mail at dhshultz@ds-a.com and on the World Wide Web at http://www.seamless.com/ds/.