Network: Fix it quick, and the bug won't bite

There are easy, inexpensive ways to ensure that your PC software and hardware are ready for the millennium - and there is still time to do it.
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The Independent Culture
It is unlikely that the lights will go out on 1 January, or that the so-called "millennium bug" will plunge the country into chaos. Large corporations and public bodies are solving the problem. And experts say failures are far more likely to be inconvenient, not catastrophic.

Unfortunately, this might be scant comfort for anyone who uses a personal computer. PCs, especially older ones, are vulnerable to millennium bug problems. Even new computers are at risk, if they run older, "non-compliant" software.

The millennium bug is caused by the way computers handle dates. To save space, programmers often used two, not four digits. The changeover from 1999, or 99 in much computer code, to 2000 might not be recognised correctly. Some computers and software will mistake 00 for 1900, not 2000, causing applications to make errors. Potentially, some computers could cease to work altogether.

Computer hardware makers have been aware of the bug for some time, and they have now updated their systems by installing millennium-compliant BIOS chips - which control a PC's basic functions - and real-time clocks. Users of older computers may not have these up-to-date parts and could suffer problems, including data loss, after the date change.

"Since May 1997, all the PCs we sell have been checked, and don't have a problem," says David Hamid, managing director of PC World, the computer retailer. "Some older PCs may have a problem, but we have yet to find one that cannot be solved by a software patch."

Computer users should check their PC's documentation, which should state if it is ready for the millennium, or if they are unsure, use one of the free software checks to test their systems. Manufacturers' websites and support desks should be able to assess whether an older PC is compliant. Realistically, anyone with a pre-1998 PC should check: not all retailers or PC manufacturers are as conscientious as large outlets such as PC World.

Mr Hamid points out that PC users are most vulnerable to millennium hardware problems if they leave their machines on over the date-change period. This is more likely to affect businesses than home users. He suggests that all PC owners should adopt a "belt and braces" approach and back up their critical files. It might even be worth printing out important information, such as accounts and financial records. Experts also warn that businesses are vulnerable if they have to work with, and exchange data with, other companies that have not upgraded their systems.

Come the millennium, computer users might find it is software, rather than hardware, which causes problems. Programs such as games and simple word-processing applications are not a great risk; anything that makes heavy use of dates, such as spreadsheets, databases or accounting applications are. Even some quite recent, well-known software has bugs which could affect some users' data.

"If the PC you buy is hardware compliant, it doesn't necessarily mean that your data is," warns Aled Miles, European general manager at Symantec, publishers of the Norton utilities packages. "For home users and small businesses, we are advising that there is critical data on their PCs which may not be compliant," he says. "We are not saying this will bring down the world, but if there is data that matters to you, it needs to be compliant."

Software publishers are working on the problem by distributing small upgrades, or patches, either directly or via their websites. It is worth monitoring publishers' sites right up until the millennium because publishers will update their bug fixes as new problems come to light.

Users of older and bespoke applications might be in a more difficult position, especially if the company that wrote the program is no longer trading. Software running under DOS or Windows 3.1 is most at risk, as few programmers are now developing packages for these older operating systems.

Some older programs and programming languages have user groups or independent websites where you can look for help. Ultimately, it might be time to consider upgrading or switching to an alternative package which is millennium compliant. If they act now, there is still plenty of time for users to learn a new package and update files.

"We advise people to be on the latest version of the software," says David Hamid. "It is a pretty good idea to update the latest issue before the millennium. Users of bespoke software should have it exhaustively tested."

Fortunately, there are several low-cost ways to identify the millennium- related problems. In most cases, they can be fixed. Microsoft, for example, has a Year 2000 helpdesk and a dedicated website with updates for its operating systems and applications. "We have been testing our applications for three years, and 95 per cent are ready today, either directly or through a patch," says Vaughan Smith, Year 2000 programme manager at Microsoft. "We believe that for the majority of people there will be no problems. The small proportion of problems we anticipate will be cosmetic." More advanced users are more likely to encounter problems, suggests Mr Smith, but there is little risk of catastrophic data loss. Microsoft will supply its customers with a diagnostic utility on CD-Rom, and mail order outlets and computer stores stock a range of Year 2000 products.

More advanced users could consider a package such as Norton 2000, which tests hardware and software. For older computers, there are hardware solutions, too: Evergreen Technologies makes a hardware card that takes over BIOS and clock functions. The card makes the machine millennium compliant, and costs about pounds 40.

Computer owners who are affected by the bug may have some comeback against the retailer who sold them the system, even if it is out of warranty. Alan Stevens, editor of Which? Online, the Internet service of the Consumers' Association, says the Sale of Goods Act protects consumers for six years. If their PC is not millennium-compliant, they can demand a repair. "Users should check with the shop that their PC is millennium compliant, although all the ones we have tested over the last few years are," he says.

Mr Stevens does warn, though, that insurance offers little protection should the worst happen and a computer does fail. Insurance companies have taken the view that the millennium bug is a "foreseeable event"; insurance, by definition, exists to cover the unforeseeable.

For that reason alone, the best approach is to be prepared. It should take no more than half a day to check and upgrade the average home computer, time well spent for peace of mind.

Information on the millennium bug is available from Action 2000 (http://www.bug2000. co.uk),

Microsoft (http:// www.eu. microsoft.com/year2000) or phone 0800 028 3372, and

Which? Online (http://www. which.net)

PC World customers can call a special helpline: 0870 901 2000 (national rates)

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