Simply put, many computer programmers in the past didn't expect the machines they were programming still to be in use today, so they permitted years to have only two digits. This shortsightedness will cause many problems if programs misread January 1, 2000, as January 1, 1900, which is expected to lead to widespread computer malfunctions and even crashes.
You would think that correcting Y2K would be easy. One thorny obstacle is finding the millions of tiny microprocessors embedded unobtrusively everywhere-from coffee machines to the equipment of power plants and similar systems used by other industries. Another is having to manually sift through billions of lines of mainframe computer code-the intricacies that make automation impossible.
Personal computers are not immune. Inexcusably, many newer programs and computers were programmed without regard for the next millennium.
You've probably read some of the gloom-and-doom prophesies about the consequences of all this. The worst of the alarmists are predicting the collapse of industries ranging from electric power and telecommunications to banking and transportation, and they're planning to head for the hills to avoid the food shortages, bank closures and riots that they expect will follow.
At the other extreme, there are those pooh-poohing all the hullabaloo, confident that the experts will take care of matters.
Personal Computer Problems
Nobody knows for sure what's going to happen. But the best analysts are saying we'll likely experience at least some disruptions, individually or collectively, and that some of these disruptions will be serious.
Fortunately, you can take steps to prepare for the problems you can't solve. And if you have a personal computer, you can take other steps to solve problems that may affect it.
Personal computer problems, though not hassle-free, are easiest to fix. First, check with whomever you bought your computer from to see if it's Y2K-compliant. Most newer ones are, but even PCs a couple of years old may need an upgrade to their BIOS, which is a chip that includes instructions for handling dates and other operations.
Upgrading a BIOS can involve popping out the old chip and inserting a new one, or downloading software over the Internet and flashing your old BIOS with updated code. You need to be careful here-a misstep can render your PC inoperable. Even though I followed instructions, flashing the BIOS of my 2 1/2-year-old Pentium 166 caused its sound to malfunction, which required a phone call to the manufacturer to fix.
You can alternately test your PC to see if it's Y2K-compliant. A number of Web sites provide access to free software for this purpose along with background information, including PC Magazine's at www.pcmag.com/y2k and CNET's at www.cnet.com/Content/Reports/Special/Y2K.
Software programs also may have problems when the new century rolls around. The most foolproof solution is simply to upgrade to the latest version of any mission-critical programs you use. Alternately, you can check with the software developer to see whether the version you're using is Y2K-compliant and, if not, whether a fix is available.
If you have a Macintosh computer, you have less to worry about, because the Mac and most Mac programs will handle the transition with aplomb. Apple's Y2K site is at www.apple.com/macos/info/2000.html.
Some Y2K issues are entirely your own doing. Whether you're PC- or Mac-based, if you've used two digits for date entries in spreadsheet, database or accounting programs, and you plan to use the same files beyond 1999, you should convert the dates to four digits or look into other remedies.
Y2K issues involving custom computer programs can be a more difficult fix, and you or your organization should have begun the process of identifying and fixing problems already. This task can be so formidable that some organizations are replacing entire systems with newer ones.
The Y2K consequences beyond your control, if they occur at all, likely will be temporary. Still, short of becoming a survivalist, it makes sense to prepare for them. In case your bank's ATMs don't work correctly on January 1, 2000, have a little extra cash on hand. In the event of a food distribution foul-up, consider stocking up on a few canned goods during the week before.
Finally, since we'll be at the mercy of winter's throes, and because utility companies with all of their embedded processors may be most vulnerable to Y2K, have a contingency plan ready if you wake up in the middle of the night shivering.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.