Y2K: Mac Owners Beware

Feeling smug about the year 2000, Mac owner? Don’t.

Sure, even the first Macintosh can handle date stamps to 6:28:15 A.M. on Feb. 6, 2040. (Alas, the current OS won’t let you set dates after Dec. 31, 2019, so you’d better have a good PRAM battery.)

And all the Power Macs one-up that, using an 8-byte timer that runs out of dates sometime in A.D. 29,940. (I’m not concerned about the exact date. Are you?)

That’s better than those DOS boxes designed with two-digit years from 1980 through 1999. (How shortsighted!) The new BIOS on most contemporary PCs extends that by a century, so most Windows users with might get in another century.

But Y2K isn’t just a hardware problem.

For instance, Excel (at least the pre-98 version) defaults to the 20th century if you enter a two-digit year, as in 12-31-99. Add one day to that, and it’s suddenly 1900 – even on a Mac.

Poor programming can defeat good hardware.

And that’s what the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem is – nothing less than poor programming.

I cut my programming teeth on a 48 KB Apple II+ and a 3KB Commodore VIC-20. All the programming books said, “Save every byte you can.”

Two digit years were a great way to do that. Historians and genealogists might not have used such shortcuts, but efficient use of space counted for a lot when memory was expensiv.

That’s why CP/M and MS-DOS used two-digit years. The PC BIOS was designed to run out in 19 years – IBM thought PCs were just a lark, so it didn’t matter.

But it’s June 1998, just eighteen months from the computer millennium. The programmer’s shortcuts have become dangerous.

It’s not just computers and software afflicted with the problem. Have you tried setting your VCR for a date two years in the future? Do you have an electronic planner? See if you can enter your birthday in the year 2000.

Another programmer’s error, and a subtle one at that, involves Feb. 29, 2000.

What? Why should Leap Day be a problem? Because a few programmers know that leap year comes every four year, skips every 100, but didn’t realize that it does come every fourth century. 2000 is a fourth century.

Try 2/29/2000 in you accounting software, spreadsheet, organizer, etc.

But we’ve only really touched on the trivial. The one remaining place where every byte counts today is embedded systems: the computer chip in your car, the ATM, a security system, or medical equipment. Will your car think it needs a tune up on Jan. 1, 2000? Or might it refuse to run?

What happens if the bank’s computer network or ATMs aren’t programmed for Y2K? Will you have to deal with 100 year’s worth of negative interest, or maybe be unable to withdraw funds.

And what happens to hospital monitors at midnight, New Years 2000?

Not to scare you, but forewarned is forearmed. Hold onto a little extra cash after Christmas 1999, check your bank statements closely, and hope you won’t be hooked to any medical equipment that isn’t Y2K compliant.

If you survive 1/1/2000 and Leap Day 2000, you’re in good shape. You’ll have decades to replace that Mac Plus, almost a century until PCs need a Y2100 compliant BIOS, and 8,000 years until the Y10K problem strikes.

By then programmers may have stopped taking shortsighted shortcuts.

Of course, we also have to wonder what happens to financial computers when the Dow breaks 10,000, which could precede 1/1/2000. Do the software programs know what to do with a five-digit Dow?

At least we know our Macs have two decades or more in them.

Further Reading

Keywords: #y2k

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