COMPANIES LOOK FOR A WINDOW TO THE NEXT MILLENNIUM

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- In search of a way to reach year-2000 compliance without completely overhauling their information systems architecture, some companies, such as Spartan Stores here, have opted to use windowing -- a technique that allows computer programs to read two-digit dates well into the next millennium.The year-2000 dilemma causes computer systems to incorrectly recognize dates past Dec.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- In search of a way to reach year-2000 compliance without completely overhauling their information systems architecture, some companies, such as Spartan Stores here, have opted to use windowing -- a technique that allows computer programs to read two-digit dates well into the next millennium.

The year-2000 dilemma causes computer systems to incorrectly recognize dates past Dec. 31, 1999. Windowing is an interim solution that enables a computer to regard certain years as falling within the 1900s and others after the year 2000. For example, if a company chose '60' as its window date, the computer would read any number up through 60 as after the year 2000 and any number above 60 as before the year 2000 -- so 60 would be read as 2060, but 61 would be read as 1961.

"Most companies using windowing seem to have decided on the numeral '60' as the window date," said Cathy Hotka, vice president of information technology and year-2000 expert at the National Retail Federation, Washington. "This allows companies to theoretically push the millennium bug back 60 years."

Though Spartan will use windowing to achieve year-2000 compliance in some systems, the wholesaler is aware that this method may not be the silver-bullet solution that some companies were hoping for, according to Pat Cox, year-2000 project manager for Spartan. The process does allow companies to push back the urgent deadlines originally set to replace many of their systems, however.

The advantage for companies using this method is they do not have to invest in, or to learn to use, new software. Instead, companies can choose when to replace their existing systems without having their backs up against the year-2000 wall, according to Cox.

"Windowing takes less time, and is less expensive than the alternatives," Cox said. One alternative would be to go from a six-digit date system (01/01/99) to an eight-digit system (01/01/1999). Another alternative would be to replace the entire processing system with one that is year-2000 compliant -- an option many large companies have already taken.

As for smaller companies that have yet to start a plan, "you could possibly achieve compliance [through windowing], if you got to it right away," Cox said.

There are certain applications, however, for which windowing may not be the best solution. For example, it may be dangerous to use windowing with a personnel or employee file. "You have workers of all different ages, and some programs may not accurately read data for an employee born before 1960," Cox explained. "This is one application where windowing would not work."

Both Cox and Hotka were quick to point out, however, that at this late date, even windowing will not help those companies that have not yet started to deal with potential year-2000 glitches. "If you don't have a plan yet, you're pretty well dead in the water," Cox said.