Small biz, desktop users may face Y2K problems

Home PC users, small businesses and those who have written their own software hybrids seem at particular risk to experience problems linked to the year 2000 date change, according to the head of the year 2000 initiative at Computer Associates International (CA).

Speaking to IDG reporters yon Wednesday during a briefing at CA headquarters, CA senior vice president Mark Combs said that, based on the experience of desktop users at the company, people who haven't upgraded their systems or software in recent years are in danger of the BIOS (basic input/output system) malfunctioning when January 1, 2000 arrives.

CA has available on its internal Web site preparation guidelines for employees taking them step-by-step through what they need to do to make certain desktop machines are ready for the date change. But when Combs started that process on his own work PC, he found that he needed to scrap that approach, get a boot disk and rebuild his computer's software applications from the ground up.

Also in peril, in his view, are emergency response systems such as those underlying 911 systems in US communities. Many of those operate using software written locally because when those systems became operational there weren't vendors with products available.

"A lot of them are really at risk," Combs said.

Compounding that risk, beyond the reliance of communities on those emergency response systems is the fact that New Year's Eve is typically a busy night for 911 dispatchers and this particular New Year's Eve is viewed by some as likely to be even crazier than usual. Apart from the anticipated level of celebration attendant with ringing out the 1900s, the year 2000 computer problem adds an edge to the New Year weekend. The problem is occurring because most older software was written with a two-digit date field that could misinterpret the "00" in 2000 as "1900" and therefore fail to make correct calculations.

That already has happened in numerous cases, though thus far the problems have been relatively minor and small in scope. For instance, hundreds of residents of Maine were erroneously sent vehicle registrations for "horseless carriages" because computers in the motor vehicles division couldn't handle the date change and thought that the year was pre-automotive 1900.

Combs noted that mistake and said that such annoying errors are likely to pop up throughout January and February. Manufacturers, for instance, might not have immediate problems as the date changes, but could notice glitches as various business cycles are worked through over the weeks after Jan.uary1.

Viruses triggered by the date change are expected to be particularly bothersome. CA has been among the vendors to issue a series of warnings as new viruses have been discovered, and to generally warn computer users that they should be daily upgrading their antivirus software at this point in the year. Although keyed to the date change, the viruses are not actually year 2000 problems, but computer users who can't boot up their systems or who otherwise have trouble with their machines on January 1 because of an infection aren't going to know that a virus is the culprit, Combs noted.

"A lot of that is going to generate noise," Combs said of the expected plethora of viruses.

Like other major IT vendors, Combs said that CA officials don't anticipate major turmoil as a result of the year 2000 date change, but the number of minor glitches could well add up so that "it will be a mess," he said.

Internally, CA started working on the year 2000 issue in 1989, and has been replacing noncompliant software and systems since 1995, he said. Acquisitions of companies has proved a challenge along the way because some of the companies CA has acquired hadn't done much work on the year 2000 problem, he said.

"We've been taking it very seriously," Combs said.

The company's 50 global support centres will be on 24-hour alert during the rollover, with technical people on duty to offer help. Support center employees have been forbidden to take vacations this month or next. CA also is offering to send a support person to the locations of customers who want that added help from December 30 through January 4, Combs said. Some 500 customers have asked for a support person, he said.

Combs declined to identify the customers asking for help, but said that they all are large corporations among the Fortune 1000 whose names are familiar. The companies in question have requested a CA support person on site more as a precaution than out of fears they are not fully prepared, Combs said.

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