Y2K Questions Linger over Microsoft Apps

With little more than 500 days left before the year 2000, Microsoft Corp. is still sending out confusing messages about its server and desktop applications that may mask the true extent of the Year 2000 problem facing customers. Yet users in Hong Kong appear to be taking the matter in stride.

Officially, Microsoft executives insist that the company's applications are now Year 2000 compliant. But many of those assertions gloss over a number of implementation issues that will create havoc for IT managers.

"(Microsoft) Office has been architected for Year 2000 compliance for some time. Office 4 is Year 2000 compliant with the exception of Access. Office 95 and Office 97 are Year 2000 compliant," said Matthew Price, group product manager of the Office developer group at Microsoft.

However, each program within each Office version is "compliant" in its own way, and in some cases each revision of each package has a different formula for recognizing two-digit dates.

"For example, if you type in ‘February 29' in a field in Microsoft Excel, how that's interpreted depends on the pivot date in the version of Excel you're using," said Robert Lefkowitz, a consultant at Next Era, in New York. "In the current version you'd get February 2029. In the previous version, you'd get February 1929. If you were using this data in the year 2000, you'd get February 29, 2000, because Excel knows it's a leap year."

Other issues are also unresolved.

A program written in Access, Excel, or Lotus that uses a two-digit date field may, depending on the version, get stored as 1900.

"Ship dates will be stored incorrectly or if you query the sales for the last month, the program may not pull in all the records. Or, if you're calculating bond maturity dates, as soon as you go to 2030 it will think it's 1930," said Steve Haskell, a senior consultant and Year 2000 specialist at Metamore Technologies, in Chicago.

Problems also reside within server applications, such as Microsoft's SQL Server database which won't recognize the year 2000 as a leap year.

"Our clients are hospitals and we use Access for the front end, VB (Visual Basic) as the middle tier, and SQL Server on the back end. We (may) have some real problems," said Randy Hartwig, a senior developer at Stockamp & Associates, in Oregon.

Hartwig cites potential problems such as patients checking out of the hospital before they are born, bills being overdue before they are sent out and children born in the year 2000 may have a birth record that will show they were born in 1900.

But according to Microsoft, there is no problem, despite the fact that Microsoft says a program must recognize the year 2000 as a leap year to be compliant.

"The way we store date formats for the product as a whole does so in complete compliance with year 2000," said Doug Leland, lead product manager for SQL Server at Microsoft.

Leland adds this caveat: "What we did learn is there is a number of peripheral areas in the products, specifically with our task scheduler (in SQL 6.5) as well as with the expiration date option on backup that has some issues with recognizing 2000 as a leap year."

In Hong Kong, however, there's not much of an issue for end users doing full Year 2000 testing and renovation work, according to one IT manager at a European bank with operations here.

Though the bank has over 800 PCs running different versions of Microsoft Office on Windows NT, "the desktop is the least of our worries," the IT manager said, noting that the bank is doing a full impact assessment and conversion for all applications.

"It's part and parcel of the (Year 2000) testing," she added, referring to the desktop applications and leap year compliance.

Yet while the bank has a team of people working on Year 2000 issues, the IT manager acknowledged that smaller organizations may be more reliant on vendors to show them the way. "Microsoft has never been known for support," she added, pointing out that the Web site is the primary support mechanism.

"Smaller users would have more of a problem than financial institutions," she said.

For ABC Data & Telecom, which has 40 PCs running Microsoft applications, the strategy for beating the Year 2000 is to simply upgrade to the latest versions of software as they become available -- and are hopefully millennium bug-free, said Tony Au, managing director of the Hong Kong firm.

"There are too many Y2K problems to be handled, and if anything can be handled by upgrades, just upgrade it, that's all," Au said of the Microsoft products in use at ABC.

In addition, desktop applications like Office aren't a major concern, he noted. "It won't have that much impact because it's not mission-critical operations type software," Au said. "If there's a problem, my company is not going to die because of it."

(Schwartz and Cornetto write for Infoworld in the U.S.)

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