Y2K: Fool Me Twice?

If they got you with Y2K, what will they do for an encore?

The honest truth is that every Macintosh made since 1984 has a problem comparable to the Y2K problem afflicting Windows computers as well as a lot of older minicomputer and mainframe software.

The good thing: The clock chip on older Macs runs out of time at 6:28 a.m. on February 6, 2040. The less good thing: The current Mac OS only lets you set dates through December 31, 2019 – so you’d better have a really long life battery handy to keep it running for the remaining 20 years.

Of course, compared with the IBM PC and its siblings, a computer designed to handle dates 56 years in the future was absolutely progressive. (I wonder what they think of the Power Mac, which can handle dates through A.D. 29,940!)

For some absolutely inexplicable reason, when IBM created the PC, it never occurred to them that the century and millennium would be ending in just 19 years.

That’s why so many DOS and Windows computers suffer from the Y2K bug: poor planning.

Not to blame IBM alone, for it was common practice from the earliest days of computing to use as few bytes as possible to store data. If you can store the year using two digits, that leaves more room for your program or data. And with computer memory measured in bytes in the earliest days (rarely kilobytes!), that counted for a lot.

Problem was, as computers came with more and more memory, nobody questioned the conventional wisdom of two-digit years.

PCs Grow Up

Frankly, IBM seems to have created the PC as a lark. Instead of designing something with its own technology, IBM used off the shelf parts and shipped its first PC with as little as 16 KB of memory. Maybe they didn’t expect PCs to be in use 19 years later – and today’s personal computers (whether Macs, Wintel, or other types) are vastly different from the personal computers of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

(Remember William Shatner pushing the Commodore VIC-20 as the wonder computer of the 80s? Personal computing was very different before the PC took over.)


The shortsighted decision to use two-digit years afflicts perhaps 100% of Wintel boxes over 5 years old, 70-80% of 3-to-4-year-old systems, and even some computer sold in the past two years.

That means that MS-DOS is on its last legs, although IBM has released a Y2K compatible version of PC DOS.

It means that Windows 3.1 and earlier are all on their last legs. Even if the computer running them can handle dates 1/1/2000 and later, they’ll display things wrong. The first day of the next millennium will display as 01-01-;0. (Yes, that’s a semicolon. In honor of Abe Simpson, my kids and I have taken to calling the symbol “diggity” when used in dates – so as far as Window 3.1 is concerned, the millennium begins on one-one-diggity-one.)

Windows 95 was supposed to be Y2K compliant. Now Microsoft says it’s mostly compliant, or complaint with issues.

Windows NT 4 is also compliant with issues – and the level of compliance depends on the service packs (Microsoft speak for patches or updates) installed.

But Windows 98, now that was supposed to be fully Y2K compliant. Which doesn’t explain the recently announced service pack to resolve some “minor issues” of Y2K incompatibility.

Windows NT 5 became Windows 2000. The standing joke is that it will ship during the first quarter of 1901.

As the tagline goes, Apple may not have done everything right, but at least they knew that the century was going to end.

Yet the bulk of business continues to depend on a technological infrastructure that, with 288 days until 1/1/2000, still doesn’t have the millennium problem solved.

I think it’s time the world woke up and smelled the operating system. Something’s seriously wrong when hardware, software, and operating systems sold within the past five years simply cannot handle moving from one century to the next.

There are two viable alternatives to Windows, both of which have roots well over a decade deep.

Unix and its derivatives, including Linux, will fly right past 1/1/2000 without missing a beat. Older Unix systems using 32-bit clocks will run into problems early in the 21st century – in the year 2038. But 64-bit clocks can handle dates millennia in the future.

And then there’s the user-friendly Mac OS, the one that Microsoft keeps copying ideas from. As noted above, most Macs over 6 years old will run into problems between 2019 and 2040, but every Power Mac can handle dates for another 28,000 years.

Yet the world holds its breath for Microsoft and Intel to solve the problem that they created. Nine months is a lot of time, isn’t it? Surely they’ll come through!

Are you betting your business on it? Or even your personal finances?

And do you know the kind of fixes they’re making? Some programs bypass the Y2K problem by moving the “pivot point” from 1900 to 1910. Any date 00-09 is the next century. And they’ll have to fix it again in another decade.

A Real-World Solution

Did you know that with programs such as MacLink Plus, files from almost any programs can be ported over to the Macintosh? Did you know that most programs available on Mac and Windows can readily interchange files across platforms?

It’s true.

And practically any program that runs under Windows 95 or 98 can run on a Mac using a program such as Virtual PC – so even if there’s no Mac equivalent to a program you use, you can run that program within Windows on the Mac. (Virtual PC is Y2K compliant, as is most modern Wintel hardware.)

If I were still using DOS or Windows (which I gave up about 9 years ago), I’d be very concerned depending on companies such as Microsoft and Intel – especially given their track record at trying to solve a simple calendar problem over the past years.

What else can go wrong? What other problems are they keeping hidden?

Sure, changing platforms requires changing some ingrained work habits. But a lot of businesses are moving to Linux servers, leaving Windows NT behind. And I can’t help but think that a fair portion of new Mac and iMac sales are to people who feel a gnawing doubt entrusting their computing future to companies that plan ahead as well as Microsoft and Intel do.

I’m just glad I made the switch to Macs long ago – and that I don’t have to worry about the Y2K problems on Windows or on the IBM AS/400 computer at work.

There are enough things to worry about as millennial hysteria grows from day to day.

At least my Macs won’t let me down.

Related Reading

  • Maine’s Y2K Glitch Cranks Up ‘Horseless Carriage’ Car Titles, Washington Post, 10/13/99
  • New iMac really an improvement, Mac OS ready for Y2K (no longer online), Star Tribune, 10/11/98. “Apple is a bit smug about the year 2000, for good reason. Even computers running the oldest version of its operating system are Y2K-compliant.”
  • The greatest fix for Y2K, osOpinion. “Most people already have the best fix for the Y2K problem. It’s called denial.”
  • The Mac Y2K advantage is moot (no longer online), Tales from the Mac Side, 4/22/98. “The sad truth is it doesn’t matter that our Macs are Y2K-compliant when the Internet we log on to, the e-mail systems we use, the banks we connect to with Quicken ’98, and the trillions of Windows machines out there can’t handle it.”
  • Y2K bug will hit early, reverberate (no longer online), Reuters, 4/20/98. “…about 60 percent of computer errors and data disruption will occur during 1999.”
  • Mac Y2K problem software (no longer online), Macnologist
  • Year 2000 Issues, MacInSchool
  • Mac Y2K Problems, Mac Musings, 2/8/99
  • Y2K: Mac Owners Beware, Mac Musings, 6/15/98
  • Bears and bugs, the Mac’s got them beat, Garry Barker, The Age, 6/16/98.
  • 1/1/2K Just Another Day for Macs, Dan Knight, Online Tech Journal, 12/21/99. And why some Mac programs are still Y2K problems.