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Dell, Compaq clean their clocks

Both firms will release tools that prevent real-time computer clocks with two-digit century fields from crashing during Y2K.

Computer giants Dell and Compaq are making sure they protect their PC customers from any Y2K threat to their computers by separately taking actions to address potential glitches in the real-time-clock related to the century date-change.

Addressing what both companies believe to be a "non-mainstream problem," the two companies, within the next few weeks, plan to release free tools on their Web sites that prevent real-time-clocks (RTCs) with two-digit century fields from crashing during the century date rollover.

The decision comes in the wake of ongoing criticism by some industry observers that major computer vendors were not addressing the RTC issue adequately enough to protect their customers from potential Y2K failures when the new century comes.

In May, Compaq was publicly challenged by a United Kingdom Y2K testing firm. The firm claimed that the computer maker was engaged in false advertising because it ran adds in Britain that its computers were fully Y2K compliant despite what the testing firm found when it ran tests on RTCs in Compaq's systems and found some failures.

Compaq agreed that the real-time Back to Year 2000 Index Page clock inside its machines won't properly recognize dates after January 1, 2000, but insisted that this does not affect the overall performance of its systems.

With the release of these tools that specifically address the Y2K impact on the RTC, it appears Compaq, as well as Dell, are acknowledging, albeit softly, the seriousness of the issue, if not the problem.

The two companies said the problem is not widespread and only affects those systems that use non-standard applications, or those that are custom made.

"There is a perception that there are non-standard applications that will go to the RTC on the Year 2000 and will crash the computer," Dave Cunningham, program manager for Y2K at Dell Computer, told CNET News.com. "To handle this we have gone on to provide a device-driver that" automatically corrects the RTC before it returns an incorrect year.

Dell has licensed a third-party product that it is calling the Dell Year 2000 RTC.

Analyst praise the two companies for addressing the issue, and despite both computer makers' claims, it may indicate a larger problem than what is generally believed.

"I believe that this is a change in the current Compaq/Dell Y2K position," said Giga analyst Norbert Kriebel. "They have acknowledged that the RTC does play an important role, but it is upsetting that they are still handling this like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They keep trying to divert the attention away from the issue."

Both companies said the only real Y2K issues in PCs are related to the BIOS system rather than the RTC, because most industry-standard applications and operating systems conduct time-related functions with the BIOS. They both have provided BIOS Y2K patches for their systems for sometime.

"This device-driver tool corrects a problem that is not mainstream, and is for a minority group of users," said Patrick Ward, a spokesperson for Compaq.

For these users Compaq developed this device driver. It is designed for Customers with MS-DOS, Windows 3.x, Windows for Workgroups, Windows 95, and Windows 98 environments installed on older model PCs without an upgradable ROM BIOS, or, customers running non-industry-standard applications that bypass the ROM BIOS and operating system to access date data directly from the RTC.

"These same 'non-industry-standard applications' run on newer machines too. So this tool must be applicable to them as well, unless they are assuming that PCs with upgradable BIOSes have already been upgraded to a BIOS that will automatically update the RTC century byte. Again confirming the importance of the RTC, " said Kriebel.

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