Lost in Cyberspace
© 1998 by H.B. Koplowitz

You own a small business and you do your own bookkeeping on computer. Nothing fancy. General ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, that sort of thing. So how much will the so-called Y2K (Year 2000) Millennium Bug affect your computer?

Not much, according to my brother, whom we'll call Sandy. Sandy is both a computer programmer and small business owner. But what makes him qualified to have an opinion on Y2K is that he's also a bit of a grifter, always looking for an angle, an easy way out. And he says there's a lot of scam artists out there trying to scare small business owners into spending a lot of money to fix a Y2K problem they don't really have. Besides, he's come up with a simple and inexpensive work-around to Y2K he calls Nifty50.

Before revealing his solution, the problem needs to be defined, and that's like trying to explain the International Date Line. Basically, when they first started making computers in the 1960s, they must have figured we'd all blow ourselves up by now, because they allocated just two digits for the year, as in 98, instead of four digits, as in 1998. So once it becomes the year 2000, computers are going to think it's 1900.

For microprocessors "hard-wired" to the bottom of a missile silo, for air traffic control systems, public utilities and the IRS, apparently that is a problem. And you can read all about Y2K's global ramifications at such websites as "The Year 2000 Information Center" <www.year2000.com>. But just because big computer systems will have problems doesn't mean your desktop computer is going to freak out.

In fact, it seldom matters what year you set your computer clock at. The exceptions include software applications that compare dates, such as accounting programs. For example, in December 1999, if you enter an account payable with a due date of Jan. 1, 2000, or 00/01/01, your computer will think it is already time to pay the bill. In fact, it will think payment is 99 years and 11 months late. Conversely, if you enter an accounts payable due 99/12/31, when your computer clock rolls over to 00/01/01, your computer will not think the payment is late. And if the software automatically computes finance charges for late payments, it won't ever charge interest.

The point is, says my brother, even if you do nothing, the problem only exists for transactions that overlap 1999-2000. Records created after 2000 will not be affected by the Millennium Bug. Thus, once the books are closed on 1999 transactions, the Y2K problem disappears, and you could continue with two-digit year dates for another 100 years.

But that hasn't stopped every new business software application on the market from advertising that it's "Y2K compliant" (or outfits such as Leonard Sloan and Assoc. <www.leonardsloan.com/about/y2k> from selling Y2K T-shirts). It hasn't stopped people from buying a whole new computer to make sure they don't catch the bug. And it hasn't stopped companies from charging thousands of dollars to meticulously comb through your old software, line by line, to change the year from two digits to four, which is all Y2K compliant means.

Sandy is charging a fraction of that for his five-step Nifty50 solution. Step one is that on Jan. 1, 2000, you turn back the date on your computer clock to 50/01/01. (A lot of computers won't let you turn the date back past 1980, so make it 80/01/01, which is also a leap year, as is 2000.)

Step 2, have Sandy or your software supplier run a search-and-replace type program that subtracts 50 (or 20) years from all your existing application data files. (I wouldn't know how to do this, but Sandy says it's pretty simple for a computer programmer.)

Step 3, modify your form printing programs to add 50 years to the date it prints on forms that go out to customers, such as statements, checks and invoices (also relatively simple for a programmer to do, according to my brother).

Step 4, for the next several months, when you input data in your bookkeeping applications, you must remember to type 50 instead of 00 for the year. This sounds like a hassle, but no more of a hassle than people go through annually when the year changes.

The final step is that in about April, when all 1999 bills have been paid in full, you simply reverse the process (you did remember to backup your software, didn't you?). With Nifty50, you can use your existing computer and software for as long into the next century as you want, waiting to buy a new computer until you are ready, and Y2K compliant prices have dropped.

At least that's what my brother plans to do with his small business. But when he took his idea to a company that maintains software for hundreds of other small businesses, the owner wasn't interested. Why implement a simple and elegant work-around when he could charge each of his customers $5,000 to go through their software, changing every year date reference from two to four digits?

Why indeed. There's a lot of money to be made on the Millennium Bug. "A lot of businesses see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a bundle off their customers," Sandy said. "Besides," he added, "in the year 10000 they're just going to have to do it all again."

copyright 1998 By H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.