Many PC apps with two-digit year codes are fine, consultant says

One year 2000 consultant has begun a public campaign to educate users
about widespread misunderstandings of year 2000 readiness in desktop systems.


LAN managers know that desktop hardware, operating systems and BIOSes could have year
2000 problems, but most users are unsure what to do about their desktop applications, said
Allen Falcon, executive vice president of IST Development Inc. of Boston.


“We see this as a big issue for government agencies,” Falcon said. “If
they don’t take even a half-day to learn what the issues are, they might try to look
for and fix every date occurrence.”


User-defined macros and formulas and embedded modules written in Visual Basic, C or C++
will cause most of the code problems in databases and spreadsheets, Falcon said.


“The problems have very little to do with how data is formatted or stored,”
said Falcon, who also said he has seen everything, including a Cobol module embedded in a
desktop spreadsheet.


Another source of application failure or bad data, Falcon said, is the vendor-defined
date function in Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel and Lotus 1-2-3 apps that interprets
two zeros in a year field to mean the year 1900.


“Forecasts will be wrong, and the errors might not be obvious,” he said.


The good news is that the year 2000 problem in spreadsheets and databases is not as big
as many people believe, Falcon said.


“In an agency like the State Department, with 280 locations around the world and,
in some cases, hundreds of people at each location, how many of them have learned to do
Visual Basic programming? Maybe 1 or 2 percent,” he said.


Power users’ spreadsheets pose potentially more year 2000 risks than spreadsheets
created by average users, he said. Relatively few spreadsheets and databases have embedded
macros and modules, Falcon said, and those that do were mostly built by agency programming
groups or consultants.


Agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission that have used his
company’s year 2000 analysis suite typically have found that less than 5 percent of
their spreadsheet and database files require detailed analysis and remediation, he said.


But many people have been scared into thinking that they must go in and change all
two-digit years, Falcon said.


The two-digit-year format for displaying dates in spreadsheets and databases is mostly
irrelevant, because the applications do not store dates as dates, he said. Instead they
convert and store them as integers.


Jan. 1, 1900, is converted and stored as the serial date number 1, he said, and Jan. 2,
1900, is stored as the serial date number 2, and so on.


But the different century windows that desktop apps use to interpret two-digit-year
formats could in fact present problems for organizations that upgrade from Excel 95 to
Excel 97, Falcon said.


The two releases calculate different serial date numbers for a birth year represented
by the digits 25, for example.


“That’s not a year 2000 bug,” Falcon said. But it is a date programming
bug that already affects organizations if they didn’t bother testing their own
programming code against the Excel upgrade.

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