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Computers on Blink Over How to Read the Year 2000

IT'S known as the year 2000 problem. And if businesses aren't careful, their computers will turn a milestone into a millstone.

Despite the mammoth technological advances made since the turn of the century, it turns out that two tiny zeros can bedevil the smartest software.

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An American bank had been selling a popular seven-year bond, for instance, when all of a sudden its computers started printing out checks worth millions of dollars, far more than the actual interest. The glitch: Its software couldn't make sense of accounts due in the year '00. The bank had to stop selling the bonds.

And in New York, a large newspaper had to stop selling 10-year subscriptions because its computers couldn't make heads or tails of a date field with '00.

Businesses are shy about admitting the year 2000 problem. But just about everyone has it: insurance companies, governments, even individuals. ''People just don't realize all the things that could go wrong,'' says Bill Goodwin of 2000AD Inc., a New York consulting firm dedicated to the problem.

No one knows for sure what exactly will happen when the clock reaches 12:00:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000. But if businesses don't do something, analysts predict consumers will see all sorts of computer-generated gremlins. For example:

* You make a call that night at 12:02 a.m. to a part of the country that is still in 1999. Will the computer charge you for the five minutes you talked or subtract 1/1/00 from 12/31/99 and calculate a 99-year phone call?

* You make a claim in 1999 on an insurance policy that started in '98 and expires in '00. Depending on the computer's arithmetic, it may conclude you had a 98-year policy that expired in 1998, making the 1999 claim invalid.

* You were born in 1982 and are applying for a driver's license in the year 2000. Will the state government's computer determine you're 18 or 82?

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''It just goes on and on,'' sighs Jay Holmes, assistant vice president for programming at USAA. The San Antonio, Texas, insurance and financial-services company has been working on the problem since the 1980s. But with 25 to 30 percent of its computer code containing date-sensitive instructions, the company still faces massive reprogramming. ''It's a very bad thing, because when you have to change a fourth of your entire inventory, you've got a problem.''

The conundrum affects more than 90 percent of Fortune 1000 companies, says David Reingold, vice president of Computer Horizons Corp., a Mountain Lakes, N.J., consulting firm. And with more than 1 trillion lines of computer code to analyze, the problem is huge.

The Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn., consulting firm, estimates that fixing the problem could total $600 billion worldwide. The federal government of the United States alone will have to spend $25 billion to $30 billion to handle the problem, estimates Chuck Ross, mid-Atlantic regional director for Data Dimensions, another consulting firm focusing solely on the 2000 problem.

Even personal computers pose potential date hazards. Many older IBM-compatible machines will, on reaching Jan. 1, 2000, interpret it as Jan. 1, 1980. Analysts have found individual PC software reacts strangely when calculating the year 2000.

To test whether a problem exists with a particular PC, analysts suggest setting the machine to a few minutes before midnight on Dec. 31, 1999. Turn off the computer, then turn it back on. If the date reads other than the year 2000, the machine has a dating problem.

The problem stems from computer-programming practices of the 1960s and '70s. Back then, computer storage and memory were precious, so programmers did everything to minimize data. Instead of using a four-digit year field, for example, they relied on a two-digit field.

No one worried much about the problem at the time, says Carla Gude, a software director at IBM. ''Programmers didn't think their programs would be around in the year 2000.''

To everybody's surprise, companies still rely on these 20- and 30-year-old programs to transact vital business functions. So companies are having to go through a tedious process of identifying date fields, modifying them so they include a four-digit year, then testing the changes.

With more businesses grappling with year 2000 fallout, computer companies and consultants are offering automated scanning programs and other date-conversion tools.

These steps should make computer programs reliable again - at least until 9999, points out Mr. Holmes, when mankind will have to reprogram everything again for a five-digit year.

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