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February 8, 1999

You can spot and fix some of your PC's year-2000 problems

The year-2000 problem has been written about to death, so I have tried to avoid it in this space. The problem -- that programmers stored year data as two digits, assuming the first two numerals of a year would be "19" -- affects big-iron systems more than PC users, but I'm confident the worst catastrophes will be avoided.

There are a few year-2000 issues that are specific to PCs and Windows, however, so here is a short list of steps you can take to head off difficulties.

The most common behavior that PCs will exhibit on Jan. 1, 2000, is that their BIOS chips won't roll over from the year 1999 to 2000. If this occurs in your PC, many versions of DOS will revert to the "year one" of PCs and think it is 1980. (This is a revealing illustration of what PCs would say about us if they could talk: They think history began in the year the first IBM PC was invented.) PCs that shipped before 1996 tend to have this glitch.

Having your computer think it is January 1980 means that documents that automatically insert dates will seem 20 years behind the times. Your scheduler program also won't remind you about your next presentation to the executive committee; the program will assume the meeting isn't happening for another 20 years.

Fortunately, the roll-over bug is easy to fix. Turn on your PC on Jan. 1, 2000, and see if it says Jan. 1, 1980. If so, set the date correctly and you're in shape for another century of trouble-free computing.

Windows NT 4.0 (with Service Pack 3 or later) automatically compensates for this type of error. But this doesn't necessarily mean the underlying BIOS problem is gone.

You may prefer to test your PC for this trait in advance of Jan. 1. If so, free tests that run under DOS, Windows 3.x/95/98, and Windows NT are available from Year 2000 Consultants at (Click "1" to go to the Hardware page, then click "Download Our Free Diagnostic" at the bottom of that page.)

The other common behavior that Windows users will experience involves dates in spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, and Corel Quattro Pro. If you have typed all your dates with four-digit years (such as 1/1/1999 and 1/1/2000), you should be fine. But if you have typed two-digit years (such as 1/1/29), you may be surprised at the way different programs handle the date.

For example, Excel 95 handles the two-digit year "29" as though it were 1929, but Excel 97 handles it as 2029. Quattro Pro handles years "00" through "50" as 2000 through 2050, and "51" through "99" as 1951 through 1999.

Higher two-digit years are treated by these programs as being in the 1900s. Excel 95's century "window" is 1920-2019; Excel 97's is 1930-2029; and Quattro Pro's is 1951-2050.

Microsoft has much more detailed information on Excel and other year-2000 issues at (Click "Product Guide," then select a product and click "Search.")

For Lotus 1-2-3 information, go to, then click "Search" and search for "1-2-3 2000."

For Quattro Pro, go to and click "Quattro Pro."

Assuming civilization as we know it doesn't end on Jan. 1, we can get to work on the year-10,000 problem. That's because our millennium bug-fix teams are now creating programs that assume a year must have four digits.

Brian Livingston's latest book is Windows 98 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.

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