Microsoft, just tell us what's wrong and how to fix it for 2000

John McCormick

With luck, most GCN readers have headed off possible year 2000 problems in their office PCs and software. Even so, it's important to keep track of last-minute changes, which seem to be surfacing quite often.

Lots of users thought they were home free when they installed Microsoft Corp.'s first year 2000 fix for Windows 98 in January. Then a second fix came out in June. It's tempting to throw up your hands and plan to postpone the final fix until December.

But that won't work. Most federal offices are already dealing with post-1999 dates. It's only the hardware clock problems that take effect in January; software problems can start when you first do a calculation or plan a project extending into next year.

Microsoft's year 2000 information Web site, at www.microsoft.com/year2000/, is valuable for Windows 9x and Windows NT 4.0 help, but the fine print is a killer. For example, when Microsoft touts Windows 98 4.10.98 as 'compliant*,' the asterisk means every prescribed fix must be present.

Government workers who make projections are the likeliest to be affected by older Windows operating systems, which correct wrong century dates only through 2029. A 1/1/30 entry, for example, could be interpreted as Jan. 1, 1930.

Trouble brewing

If you didn't get the December Win98 fix, you might be in for real trouble with such basic components as the Java Virtual Machine. Other fixes are simpler, such as changing the Control Panel to make Internet Explorer display four-digit years.

Even if you have installed Update No. 2 this summer, don't neglect to check back at the Microsoft site no later than mid-December. I for one am not convinced that all of Windows' year 2000 bugs have been found.

The site makes no mention of unresolved problems. Microsoft does not post problems until the patches are ready, and I can't believe that any software vendor manages to fix things as soon as it discovers them.

The site has a fix for Windows 95, too. A complete download, including repairs for Internet Explorer 4.01 and the OS, occupies a hefty 80M.

If your office is considering an upgrade to Win98 to avoid year 2000 hassles, you should read the y2kw95.txt document at uwww.microsoft.com/windows/downloads/bin/w95/y2kw95.txt. Updated in March, it describes how to install the upgrade. Section IV describes the biggest known Win95 problems. Reading it might help you decide whether to switch to Win98 with its own problems, or to fix the Win95 you already know.

If this is all becoming a blur and you need a basic introduction, look at another Microsoft site, at computingcentral.msn.com/guide/year2000/msy2k/introducing/y2khome.asp.

PCs running Windows are obviously the big concern because they are so widespread in government offices, but other OSes are not free of the so-called millennium bugs. For example, check out www.gnu.org/software/year2000-list.html, the Free Software Foundation's site listing what is OK, what isn't OK and what hasn't been tested yet in the Linux arena.

On the untested list are such common tools as grep2.2 and many versions of emacs. A metasite for possible Linux problems, at www.linux.org/help/beginner/year2000.html, has dozens of links.

The good news about all Unix-like operating systems, including Linux and probably even the old OS-9 used in CD-ROM drives, is that they do not store date fields. They count time in seconds starting from 1970. According to www.linux.org.uk/mbug.html and other sites, this method will carry them through 2038. Future 64-bit Unix versions should be good just short of forever.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com

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