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Rare year 2000 bug could disable older PCs

November 25, 1998
Web posted at: 10:00 AM EST

by Robert L. Scheier

(IDG) -- PC tool vendors and programmers are squabbling over whether an obscure bug could cripple some PCs when the date changes from 1999 to 2000.

Some experts say it's hogwash; some say it's a real threat. The consensus at this point is that the problem is rare and is more likely to occur in older PCs, which should lessen its impact for companies that have updated their PC inventories.

The glitch is called the Crouch-Echlin Effect. Proponents say it's caused by a miscommunication between two components of the PC: the BIOS, which controls basic PC functions, and the real-time clock, which tracks time and other critical settings while the PC is off.

When the PC's system clock is turned beyond the year 2000 and the PC is turned on and off, the BIOS can in some cases misread the information it gets from the real-time clock.

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That miscommunication can cause anything from incorrect dates in applications to preventing the PC from functioning, said Mike Echlin, a technical officer at Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, Ontario. Echlin, along with history professor Jace Crouch at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., discovered the bug.

"The Crouch-Echlin effect ... is real," though it hasn't been determined how many systems this affects, said Stephanie Moore, an analyst at Giga Information Group in Westport, Conn. In rare cases, the problem could "scramble the settings in your computer's CMOS memory so that at the next start-up, you can't start the computer or you may not be able to access some of the devices attached," Moore said.

Not so fast, said David Iacino, a senior manager for the year 2000 program at BankBoston. At his lab, where testing includes turning on PCs with post-year-2000 dates and running them for long periods of time, the issue "has not surfaced," and "therefore, I'm not going to pursue it," he said.

Compaq investigates

Even Compaq Computer Corp., which earlier had said that the problem is real and that it would resell a diagnostic program Echlin is selling, has backed off while it investigates the question further.

The earlier comments were the opinion of one employee at a Compaq year 2000 center in Albany, N.Y., and didn't reflect company policy, said spokesman Alan Hodel in Houston.

Echlin said the bug happens only intermittently on PCs with clocks turned past year 2000 that are turned off and then on. Working out of his basement, he said, he has performed two-week tests on 20 to 30 PCs and finds that about one-third of the PCs he has tested are susceptible to the problem.

Echlin declined to name brands or models that passed or failed his test because, he said, vendors change components so often that one PC may be vulnerable to the problem, while another supposedly identical PC made the same day by the same vendor won't suffer from the bug. Besides, he said, he's worried about being sued by PC vendors.

Many observers agreed that the problem could be eliminated by using a "buffered" real-time clock, which sends its time and other information to a memory buffer rather than directly to the BIOS. Most Pentium-class PCs have such buffered clocks, so they're unlikely to face a problem, said Stuart Greenfield, an analyst at the Texas comptroller's office in Austin.

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