BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 1999

  

 

BOOT CAMP 076

SURVIVING THE MILLENNIUM, PART 1

Only 91 days to go! No, we're not talking about the famous millennium meltdown scheduled for January 1st 2000. This one might, or might not happen on Thursday 9th of September 1999 or '09/09/99. This is a 'dump date' used on some programs to indicate the end of a file (or a file with no particular date) and there's a chance that some COBOL based business applications could fail on that date. This is just one of a number of critical dates to watch out for during the coming year. February 29th 2000 is another because the year 2000 is a leap year, but according to the rules it shouldn't be, apparently some date-sensitive applications and products will keel over and die.

Scare stories in newspapers and the media have variously predicted that everything from washing machines to oven timers will stop working, or worse, on the first day of the new millennium. Police and troops will be on standby to deal with civil unrest caused by power cuts, interruptions in food supplies, nuclear detonations and Jumbo jets falling out of the sky…

An astonishing amount of twaddle has been written about the so-called 'Millennium bug' in the past year or two, so this week we'll try to set the record straight; next week we'll show how to make sure your PC doesn't let you down on or after January the 1st 2000.

Leaving aside the year 2000 or 'Y2K' issues in the wider world, for the average consumer and householder the principle concern is devices or products in the home. A lot of reports have focused on 'embedded microchips'. They're everywhere controlling functions inside a huge range of electronic and electrical products from Furbys and fridges to vacuum cleaners and cars, but only a tiny, tiny fraction of them give a fig about the date. The simple rule of thumb is that unless you had to program the time or date into a gizmo or appliance when you first brought it, it won't be affected.

There is absolutely no need to worry about the vast majority of domestic appliances, including time-conscious things like central heating timers, video recorders and camcorders. We are aware of a couple of ancient video recorders that won't recognise 2000 as a leap year and one or two other elderly VCRs might stumble, if programmed to make a timer recording over the New Year holiday. But after that they will continue to operate normally, assuming there are no power cuts...

The only device you're likely to own or use that might conceivably give you some trouble is the PC. However, it's important to say that no computers will stop working as a result of the millennium bug, nor will they catch fire or explode, but getting the date wrong could cause the operating system or some applications to misbehave or crash. Now is a good time to take stock and sort out any Y2K compliance issues, before they can happen. 

Year 2000 problems for the PC fall into two basic categories, hardware and software, and yes, all you Mac users out there can look smug because none of this affects you. The hardware side of things is only relevant if your PC is more than two or three years old. It concerns a widget called the Real Time Clock or RTC that lives on the computer motherboard and the BIOS program that configures the PC every time it is switched on. The BIOS takes time and date information from the RTC and makes it available to the operating system and programs running on the PC. After midnight on 31st December 1999 some older PCs may get the date wrong, reporting that the year is 1900 or some time during the 1980's (when the software was written). This won't stop the PC functioning and the date can be easily reset the next time the PC is switched on. There are also add-ons and software upgrades (more about that next week), that will ensure the date 'rolls-over' correctly if the PC is left switched on and running. In short it's not a big deal and in most cases it can be easily fixed.

On the other hand software problems can be a bit more involved as they concern both the operating system (Windows 3.1, 95, 98 etc.,) interacting with the programs and applications loaded on your PC. There's the potential for a lot of mix ups to occur if the software interprets the date wrongly from the BIOS or system clock, or it fails to recognise the date change. Even recently published software isn't immune and there are quite a lot glitches in Windows 98, including one discovered as recently as April this year that can affect users of International (non-English) versions running Access or Visual Basic programs. Don't panic, even if you are using older date-sensitive applications, there's still plenty of time to sort it out. If your PC is mainly used for word-processing or accessing the Internet you may not need to do anything at all, at worst files may be tagged with an incorrect date stamp, which might be inconvenient, but it won't stop your PC from working.

Unfortunately there are no easy or quick fixes for Y2K software-related problems since the operating system and the programs on your machine will have been written by several different companies and some of them may go back several years, so there's no saying what sort of things might happen. The best way to proceed is to carry out an audit of all of the applications on your machine. Identify which ones are date dependent (the operating system, financial packages, accounting programs, etc.), and which ones are not (word processors, paint and graphics, games etc.), so you know which ones need to be checked first, we'll show you how in next week's Boot Camp.

Next week – Fixing Y2K problems

 

JARGON FILTER

BIOS

Basic Input Output System, a set of instructions that tells your PC what it is connected to, and how to communicate with devices like disc drives and memory chips

COBOL

Common Business Oriented Language – programming language used in data processing and business applications

OPERATING SYSTEM

A collection of programs, such as Windows 95, 98 and DOS (disc operating system), that that manages all of your PC’s resources -- RAM memory, disc-drive, display screen, etc., -- and controls how files are stored and retrieved.

 

TOP TIP

Windows Explorer in Windows 95 has a mind of its own and always seems to open with a different shape, position or icon and display settings. You can make remember your preferences -- for a while at least – set it up the way you want it to look then press Ctrl + Alt + Shift when you click on the close icon (the 'x' in the top right hand corner). It will eventually forget but it's easy enough to repeat the exercise. It's a lot easier in Windows 98, set up Windows Explorer, go to the View Menu then Folder Options and select the View Tab and press the 'Like Current Folder' button. 

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