Microsoft 2000 plan already nonstandard

Like other software vendors, Microsoft Corp. is reassuring users that its products are
"Year 2000-ready," but the company so far is ignoring industry and government
recommendations for standard date formats.


In 1997, the software giant will update all its software products that use
two-character date fields where the two absent characters are assumed to be 19, as in
1996.


The updated products "will make it easier to assume a 2000-based year," a
recent Microsoft executive memo said, and for that reason, Microsoft recommends that
"by the end of the century, all PC software be upgraded to versions from 1997 or
later."


The memo isn't specific about whether users will have to pay for these 1997 versions or
whether they will come as free software patches downloadable from Microsoft's World Wide
Web site.


Federal agencies license Microsoft operating systems, office applications, and products
for systems management, database management, messaging and development. Most of these
products by default use the date formats in the Windows operating systems' run-time
libraries.


For Windows 3.x, Windows 95 and Windows NT, those formats will carry over well into the
21st century, said Microsoft federal marketing manager Bruce F. Weber.


But there's a limit to how long these operating systems will support valid dates.
Windows 95 and Windows NT run-time libraries have date formats that have been hard-coded
to time out at 2099. Other Microsoft products are hard-coded to time out at 2019, 2036,
2049 and other years.


Based on the information Microsoft provided in the executive memo, SQL Server and
Visual FoxPro are about the only Microsoft products now able to handle any date that users
enter in the field.


Current versions of Access 95 time out at 1999 if users select the two-character date
field option instead of four-character date fields. Microsoft has promised to build a
longer grace period into the next major release of Access, Weber said, by pushing forward
the expiration date for two-character date fields to the year 2029.


Weber attributed the lack of date field standardization in Microsoft products to
""programmer preference--some people like two digits, some like the long dates,
so we try to give them that flexibility.''


Although the company has advised software developers to use long date fields to avoid
century confusion, Microsoft marches to its own drummer in this area, as in others.


Microsoft products follow the mm/dd/yyyy long-date format, which is
incompatible with the yyyy/mm/dd format endorsed by the American National
Standards Institute and the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and
Technology.


Format discrepancies could wreak havoc in any government applications that share data,
said software architect Donald Fowler of IBS Conversions Inc. in Oak Brook, Ill. "The
ANSI committee should really be on Bill Gates' case," he said.


If applications don't check for valid date fields, PC users could run into trouble
whenever they have two applications---one following yyyy/mm/dd format and the
other mm/dd/yyyy--that talk to each other.


"One of those applications is going to have to be 'the owner' and make the date
change," Fowler said. An agency programmer could do that by writing a small program
to flip-flop all the four-character fields, he said.


If agencies don't establish that kind of control, Fowler warned, their programs may
continue to run but corrupt the stored files.


Just as agencies have been forced to adopt standards for names and addresses on mail,
Fowler said, "now they'll have to introduce date standardization as well."


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