Emory Report

Feb. 1, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 18

First Person:

Morse says to look closer to home to find Y2K problems

A lot has been said about computers and the Year 2000. Some have said planes may fall from the skies, banks may fail and/or power plants may simply stop working. Others have said that nothing much will happen except bank machines may not work or your phone call might not get through. The reality is probably somewhere in between, but no one can say for sure until we celebrate the new year fewer than 365 days from now.

Back in the "old days" of computers-the 1960s and '70s-when computer power and memory were very expensive, computer programmers saved resources by only using the last two digits of the date and assuming the first two. So 1999 became "99." Come 2000, these computers may read the date as 1900 or they may just simply stop working. You can imagine how this would seriously affect banks, power companies and the like. But it could also affect things as small as calculators or, in the case of hospitals, IV machines, heart monitors and everything else, because these machines often have embedded chips that regulate the machine operation as well.

Well, we know you have been hearing a lot about Y2K here at Emory. But what about your home? You probably have not thought about how the Year 2000 could make some things at your house simply not work the way they used to or, in some cases, work at all.

The obvious place to start is your home computer. It has the exact same problems as your computer at work. If you are running a computer that is a 486 or older, it is nearly 100 percent likely that it is not Year 2000 compliant and cannot be made so. The problem lies at the heart of the machine: its BIOS (the small bit of on-board memory that makes the computer start when you turn it on). The BIOS, along with the clock chip, tells the computer what day and time it is.

While some Pentium processor and more advanced machines also have non-Year-2000- ready BIOS, almost all have a way to update this program. Older computers most often do not. Worse, these older machines are not certified by Microsoft to run its Year 2000-ready operating systems: Windows 98 or Windows NT 4.0 with patches. Even if you managed to get Windows 98 or NT installed on these older machines, the system would be so slow as to be unusable.

So if you have a 486 or older machine, the time is now to start looking to buy a new one. Why not wait until closer to 2000? Some companies are looking to replace all of their computers to make sure they are Y2K ready. This could make prices skyrocket.

Why not just live with the date wrong on your computer? Tests have shown that these computers often act erratically. Some simply delete files. Setting back the date doesn't work either. Why? Because if you bring home files from work, for example, with the proper date attached, these machines become confused and again act erratically and can delete or destroy that file.

If you have a Pentium processor that may not have a BIOS that is Year-2000 ready, you should call the system manufacturer. Many, like Dell, have a portal on their web site that lets you enter your computer's serial number to see if it is compliant. If it isn't, the company will give you instructions on how to make it so.

But we aren't done just yet: even if the computer itself knows the right time, the operating system needs to be able to know it too. That means if you have Windows 95, Windows 3.1 or DOS at home, these will need to be upgraded to Windows 98 or NT 4.0 with patches. Windows 98 is the more user-friendly of the two.

So now you have a Pentium or above with a Y2K-ready OS and a BIOS that knows dates past 1999. Are you done? Nope. You have to make sure the applications you are running are Y2K-ready as well. If you are running WordPerfect 7.x or lower, for example, you need to switch to Office 98 or buy the new WordPerfect 8.x. For other applications, we suggest you check the company's web site to see.

If you own a Macintosh, the computer is Y2K-ready, according to Apple-see their web site for more details. Of course, the applications you're running may not be ready, and again you'll have to check.

What else can go wrong in your house? If you like to record things on your VCR at particular times, expect trouble past the Year 2000. Most VCRs out there are not Y2K-ready. The same applies to FAX machines. While they may keep going, the date functions will no longer work properly.

Alarm systems often have embedded chips, as do some coffee makers, microwaves, stoves and more. Of course, alarm clocks and watches also may not be Y2K ready. Do you have a lawn sprinkler? Does it work by date? Better have it checked. What about your car? Some cars have chips that tell it when it is time to be serviced. While most car manufacturers say no real problems will happen, it is better to be safe than stuck in 2000.

The list could go on and on...

There is good news, though. Most household items will at least keep their basic function despite being messed up about the date. So your coffee machine will still brew that perfect cup, even if it thinks the year is 1900. But what can you do if you still want your coffee percolating before you wake up? Unfortunately, there is no one place to go. You'll probably have to check with the manufacturer or vendor for each chip-embedded item in your home. If it is not Y2K-ready, you'll most likely need to learn to live with its limitations, have the vendor service it (if they will service it-some still don't have solutions) or replace it.

As you can see, the Year 2000 issue is not an easy one-especially for computer folks. Like you, we are having to live with problems created 30 to 40 years ago with computer code no one thought would be around in 2000-but it is.

Bear with us as we get ready for 2000. The new century offers many new promises. But before we can get there we have to deal with a couple of nagging problems created in the old one.

William Morse is director of information services at the School of Public Health and nursing school.

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