Will a Y2K bug blow up in your face?
January 11, 1999
by Roberta Furger
(IDG) -- As the clock ticked ever closer to 2000, Jim Reid, a document control supervisor from Florida, had a simple question: Would his two-year-old NEC Ready computer fall victim to the millennium bug? First he checked NEC's Web site but found no mention of his specific PC. Then he sent an e-mail to the company's technical support department and received a terse and rather distressing response: "We do not have a BIOS that will make your computer Y2K compliant. We regret any inconvenience this may cause."
That's when Reid panicked. "Do I throw my machine in the garbage on January 1?" he asked. As it turns out, his situation is less dire than NEC's first message implied. His model PC hasn't been tested for Y2K compliance, so NEC has yet to decide on a fix. (The technician who answered his first query evidently wasn't aware of this.) In the worst case, he'll have to manually reset the computer's internal date on January 1, 2000. He won't, as he once worried, have to toss out his $3000 PC.
Reid's uncertainty about his computer illustrates the Y2K problem's potential to strike fear in the hearts of computer users everywhere. With all the press surrounding the issue and the countless gloom-and-doom predictions of an end to life -- computing and otherwise -- as we know it, tensions are running high.
Some panic is inevitable, given the scope of the problem. But solid information, plus a commitment by vendors to help customers through the maze of compatibility issues, can go a long way toward stabilizing this volatile issue.
Not surprisingly, consumers want to get their computing houses in order. Though the "easy solution" -- as one industry executive told me -- is to buy a new PC and upgrade your software, that fix is not a practical or affordable answer for most of us. The next-best alternative is to figure out whether each product you use is Y2K compliant. This is where hardware and software companies come in. Sure, you can buy a software tool to test your system's exposure to the millennium bug. But shouldn't you be able to get that data from the companies whose products you're using?
Many companies supply updates about their products' Y2K-compliance status on their Web sites. Most major PC companies explain the problem clearly and provide an exhaustive listing of their systems, stating whether each model is compliant and identifying the available fixes. Dell, Compaq, and Packard Bell have especially informative and easy-to-follow online resources. On the software side, Microsoft, Lotus, and Corel offer similar product information. But many other companies haven't addressed Y2K compliance publicly, heightening customers' concerns (some call it hysteria).
To encourage all companies to share Y2K-compliance information with their customers as soon as it becomes available, President Clinton signed the Year 2000 Readiness and Disclosure Act last fall. Under the new law, any businesses that post Y2K-related information between July 14, 1998, and July 14, 2001, that later proves to be inaccurate cannot be held liable for their error, provided that the misinformation was unintentional.
Such protection seems reasonable. But critics of the new law are justifiably worried that companies will hide behind some vague statement about year 2000 compliance in the event that consumers sue for having received inaccurate or misleading information. (Of the hardware and software company Web sites I visited, Corel's was the only one that specifically cited the new law.)
Sharing compliance information with consumers is a crucial first step. But it's not enough for a company to say that a product will not function properly in 2000. The vendor must also tell customers what it plans to do about the problem. Will it offer an upgrade? Are there work-arounds for products that won't be made Y2K compliant? At a minimum, a company that doesn't have a fix should inform customers about the status of its investigation. Consumers need this information to make decisions about when and how to prepare themselves for D-Day.
Here's where several companies have run into problems. At this writing, nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed against hardware and software companies, including Intuit, Micron, Quarterdeck, and Quarterdeck's new parent company, Symantec. The facts in each case differ, but the issues they raise can be boiled down to three questions: Should a software developer or PC maker be obligated to tell its customers if its products are not Y2K compliant? If so, should the company be forced to fix any millennium bugs before the ball drops? And perhaps the knottiest of all, who should pay for these upgrades?
Many companies are scrambling to test products for Y2K compatibility. Others have yet to decide what type of fix -- if any -- to make available. One of the best ways to keep up with the latest developments is to visit www.year2000.com, which supplies links to year 2000 information on dozens of company Web sites.
Some industry leaders believe consumers should pay to upgrade their systems and software. But hardware and software companies shouldn't use the millennium bug to force a global upgrade on consumers. From where I sit -- at an early-model Pentium running software that's two generations old but works just fine, thank you -- paying for an upgrade is an unreasonable solution. Why should consumers have to buy new products because of flaws that the manufacturer may well have known about when it released the product?
Corporate responsibility, however, only goes so far. Anyone still using DOS applications -- or even Windows 3.1 products -- can't realistically expect to be bailed out. Hardware and software companies are too busy fixing newer releases to correct problems in versions of operating systems no one sells any more. But how far back should they go? One year? Two years? Five? The courts haven't spoken yet, but don't hold your breath waiting for companies to fix old software.
Ultimately, companies must share information and, when reasonable, provide their customers with practical fixes. Should those fixes be free? Yes, if possible -- particularly in the case of products released after companies had become aware of the Y2K time bomb. At the very least, consumers should be able to get guidance on when and how to correct their system and software.
Anything less is bad business.
Contributing Editor Roberta Furger is author of Does Jane Compute? Preserving Our Daughters' Place in the Cyber Revolution (Warner Books, 1998).
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