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Is Year 2000 standard needed?

The lack of a standard for Year 2000 compliance is increasing confusion among vendors, consumers, and industry observers.

Weeks after computer giant Compaq was publicly challenged by a British firm over the Year 2000 compliance of its PCs, debate over the need for a global compliance standard is growing.

The computing industry has no standard for Year 2000 compliance, leaving PC makers, consumers, and industry observers worldwide without an accepted definition for what is and is not Y2K compliant. The lack of a standard is increasing confusion as well as the possibility for more situations like Compaq's to occur, warn observers.

Last month, Prove It 2000 claimed that the Texas PC maker's machines were not Year 2000 compliant because the testing procedure employed by the company does not recognize that the real-time clock (RTC) inside the products won't properly identify dates after January 1, 2000. The alleged noncompliance contradicts Compaq's claims and subsequent ad campaigns boasting of its PCs' Y2K readiness.

The British firm then submitted a complaint with the United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), claiming the computer maker was engaged in false advertising because it said its machines are fully prepared for the millennium.

The PC maker sticks by its machines and the National Software Testing Laboratories (NSTL) standard under which they are tested. However, the British firm, Compaq, and industry analysts have entered into a debate over whether NSTL's definition of compliance goes far enough.

Norbert Kriebel, and analyst with Giga Information Group, said he likens the situation to a plague, where there are many medicines out there but not the right one to completely fix the problem. "NSTL has to expand what the testing looks for. I don't believe it goes far enough," he said.

The root of the problem, Kriebel said, is that the testing utility being used for NSTL's certification does not include retention testing--a process that examines the Date/Time interaction between a system's RTC and BIOS. Not testing this interaction makes Year 2000 compliance completely dependent upon the systems BIOS being compliant, when in truth the vast majority of PC failures will result from noncompliant interactions between the RTC and BIOS.

According to a published analysis by Kriebel on the Compaq issue, the NSTL states in its own white paper that it considered including a testing feature to confirm the retention of century information. Providing such support in a free test, however, would be highly expensive. Nonetheless, a reboot test is an important part of the total Year 2000 test process, Kriebel noted.

"Instead of starting a standards body from scratch, NSTL should just expand its process to include" the RTC, he said.

The shortness of time before the close of this century and the reluctance of PC makers to test their machines makes it nearly impossible to establish a working global testing standard, said Gartner GroupYear 2000 research director Lou Marcoccio. About "80 percent of all IT technology vendors are not testing before they put out a product," he added.

Compared to the rest of the industry, Marcoccio gave kudos to Compaq for going to NSTL for testing in the first place. "I applaud them, because they've done more than that 80 percent in the industry."

The Gartner analyst cautioned that although NSTL's testing and certification program is legitimate, it does not mean it will eliminate all probability of Y2K failure in a product. "No one can do that," he said.

Regardless of the test, whether it is recognized by all companies and countries, none can completely eliminate the probability of failure. "It's impossible to test for every scenario, data interaction, financial transaction," he said.

As the new millennium approaches, observers agreed that the most favorable situation would be to gather support to adopt one guiding standard for most vendors to follow.

Compaq's director of enterprise systems, Barnard Luksich, said that is just what his company is trying to do by using NSTL's procedure. "They have a testing process and certification logo in place. Twenty-five other PC vendors also use NSTL. We wanted to find a test that had enough vendors that supported it and where customers could go and check compliance themselves."