The year 2000 could cause serious problems with software that uses two-digit date fields. A "03-01-00" date can crash software packages that recognize "00" as 1900, not 2000.

The glitch could affect companies that make heavy use of financial software, as well as manufacturers that use electronic data interchange (EDI) for their shipping and manufacturing schedules, and even companies projecting sales over the turn of the century.

"Smaller companies running off-the-shelf software can usually just replace those modules," says Lynn Edelson, a partner specializing in computer issues at Coopers & Lybrand in Los Angeles. But it's not too soon to start scheduling replacements, coordinating upgrades if you're using older software versions, and training employees on the new systems.

The first step to take in 1996 is to learn whether you have a problem. Contact programmers of custom software and ask if it's "year 2000-compatible." If not, the developer may have a solution, but scheduling your repair will take time. To check operating systems, reprogram the date and time to read "12-31-99, 11:58pm." Then turn the computer off and wait three minutes. Turn it back on, and check the date. If it doesn't say "01-01-00," you've got a problem.

Should you need outside help, there are companies available to do an initial diagnosis. Coopers & Lybrand has been billing small companies an average of $5,000 for evaluations. For more information on the topic, check the Year 2000 home page on the World Wide Web (at http://www.year2000.com/cgi-bin/clock.cgi).

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