1/1/2K Just Another Day for Macs, but Not for All Mac Apps

Every version of the Mac OS is ready for Y2K, but some programs for the Mac suffer from Y2K problems.

Early personal computers didn’t remember the date and time – you had to set it every time you turned your computer on. It was still that way with early DOS machines, such as the IBM PC and dozens (if not hundreds) of clones.

To simplify things, the user would set the date by typing in two digits for the month, the day, and the year. The clock would normally be set using a 24-hour clock. And a lot of DOS users wrote batch files that asked for this information at startup so we wouldn’t forget to set it.

It should go without saying that clock-calendar cards were popular accessories for Apple IIs and DOS computers.


Between 1981, when IBM introduced the PC, and 1984, when Apple unveiled the Macintosh, that functionality became a standard feature of computers. Usually powered by a five-year (or so) lithium battery, once you set the right time, your computer would take care of things until the battery died or was removed.

But DOS computers not only accepted the year as a two-digit number, they also stored it that way. So, after 1999, there’s going to be a problem with DOS and Windows machines that haven’t been updated to use four-digit years.

And that is the core of the Y2K problem – hardware and software that wasn’t designed for four-digit years.

Knowing this helps us understand why most early computers used two-digit years – and why their descendants are running into a problem when 1-1-2K comes along.

How the Macintosh Handles Time

Thinking different has always been Apple’s way. The Apple II was not just the first popular PC, it had many innovations such as color video and Woz’s floppy controller. The Lisa introduced the mouse and graphical user interface.

The Macintosh may not have been Apple’s first computer that retained the time and date – it may have been the Apple /// or the Lisa. But the Mac did store it, and not in the same way as most earlier computers.

Unlike PCs, Macs never used two-digit years. Yes, you set the date using two digits in the Date & Time control panel, but that wasn’t how the computer stored or used the date.

Apple picked an arbitrary date in 1904 as its base, time zero. All time was stored internally relative to that date. But Apple didn’t store it as so many days, months, and years after the base; instead, the Mac tracked seconds since time zero.

Remember, these machines are called computers for a reason. It’s very easy for the Mac to know the present time right down to the second and calculate the proper date and time to display in ways we are accustomed to.

For instance, I have the Date & Time control panel set to display the time in my menu bar. It shows the day of the week, followed by the time in hours, minutes, and seconds, and then it indicates AM or PM. If I click on that, it displays the date listing the day of the week followed by the month, day, and year.

The beauty of this system in comparison to the old DOS way of doing things is twofold.

  1. It’s easy to configure for different conventions. Want 24-hour time? Want the date displayed as day/month/year or year:month:day? The Mac OS lets you do that easily.
  2. There’s no Y2K problem. As far as the Mac is concerned, 12:00:01 on Jan. 1, 2000 is only two seconds after 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1999. There’s nothing special about it.

Okay, the Mac Is Safe

There’s more to it than that. For one, every Macintosh computer ever made will be able to count seconds until 6:28 a.m. on February 6, 2040. Better yet, every Power Macintosh ever built, since they use an even larger number, can count the seconds from time zero until sometime in A.D. 29,940.

However, even the Mac isn’t quite perfect. In older versions of the Mac OS, the Date & Time control panel only lets you set dates from 1/1/1920 through 12/31/2019. By the time 2019 rolls around, I’m sure that won’t be an OS issue, but that does set a bit of a limit on the usable life of the Mac Plus, Quadras, and other pre-PowerPC machines. (Note that Apple has only certified System 7.5.5 and later as Y2K compliant. Earlier versions are also compliant, but have not been certified.)

If you’re still using those old Macs in 2019, I suggest you install a fresh battery in late December. That could give you at least five more years of use for what will be very, very old computers by then. Or perhaps someone will have hacked a new Date & Time control panel that allows setting the date on the older computers between 1941 and 2040.

But We’re Not Out of the Woods

The Mac hardware is fully Y2K compatible, as is the OS. There are some limitations on dates for older Macs (support 1904 to 2040, but OS restricts input to years 1920 through 2019).

But that doesn’t mean all the software that runs on the Mac is Y2K safe. A lot of programs – especially from Microsoft – stored dates in their own internal format, which use the two-digit years that Apple had the foresight to avoid. And even some software from Apple has problems (notably Cyberdog 2 and Claris Emailer 1).

Here’s a real short list. For more details visit the Macworld and Macnologist pages on Y2K Mac software issues.

  • Apple, Cyberdog 2
  • CE Software, QuicKeys prior to 3.5.3
  • CE Software, QuickMail Pro, client and server
  • Claris, Emailer 1 (solution: free upgrade to 2)
  • Connectix, Virtual PC prior to 2.1.1
  • FileMaker, FileMaker Pro prior to 4.1v2.
  • Global Village, GlobalFax prior to 2.6.8.
  • Insignia, SoftAT/SoftPC,SoftWindows.
  • Intuit, Quicken 98 prior to R5.
  • Microsoft, Excel 5.0, 98
  • Microsoft, Outlook Express 4.0
  • Microsoft, PowerPoint 4.0 through 4.0c
  • Microsoft, Word 6.X

If you use any of these versions, or any other software you suspect may use an internal two-digit date, check the vendor’s site for Y2K compatibility before the end of the year.

And once you’ve got your software ready to 2000, remember that your Mac always has been ready for it. Kinda makes you glad you thought different and chose a Mac instead of Windows, doesn’t it?

Further Reading

Keyword: #y2k

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