Time switch creating computer nightmare: Technology experts predict change to daylight-saving could be Y2K all over again

March 13, 2006

If you have an important meeting starting April 2, beware of relying on your computer for a reminder-there's a fair chance you'll be late.

The state's first-ever switch to daylight-saving time will leave thousands of computers confused about what time it is, and their users not much better off.

PC clocks have to be adjusted just like the cuckoo over the mantle, but if you forget to switch the timezone setting from "Indiana (East)" to "Eastern Time"-or neglect to check the little daylight-saving box-your computer won't spring ahead with the rest of the world.

And that's the easy part.

Even if you or the ponytail people from IT remember to reset the time zone, there's another issue involving computers running day/timedependent software such as Microsoft Outlook or Novell GroupWise.

Appointment calendars in some of these popular applications are programmed to automatically reschedule appointments set prior to April 2 for an hour later after the time changes. So for example, a 9 a.m. appointment you schedule this month for April 18 will show up on the Outlook calendar as 10 a.m. when the big day rolls around.

Business deals dashed. Careers ruined. Expect a run on job applications at Wal-Mart.

"There's going to be a lot of companies hurting on April 2," said Marc Cornejo, the top tech at Indianapolis logistics firm Langham. "... It took five years to fix Y2K and for a lot of companies this is almost as bad."

And unlike the furor over possible computer glitches at the turn of the century, relatively few companies are aware of the computer issues that will surface only a few weeks from now.

"At first you say, 'Well, that's no big deal.' But if you have 5,000 users, someone has to go in and fix all of that," Cornejo added.

The issue involving calendar times on Outlook is especially insidious, computer techs say. While some rivals' products have a patch that makes it relatively easy to fix, no quick fix exists for Outlook.

"We thought, well, it's relatively simple. Microsoft can write a quick fix for this," recalled Sue Stephenson, information technology director at Indianapolis law firm Baker & Daniels.

But since the modern age of computing dawned in offices over the last decade, there have been precious few changes involving time zones. And computer systems have become too smart for their own good, with capabilities that allow one person to schedule meetings for dozens of others and have the meeting dates pop up automatically on electronic calendars and in e-mails.

At this point, "there is no fix, and there is not going to be a fix," Stephenson predicted. Technically speaking, "Microsoft's program is not broken."

Scrambling for a solution

Some aren't giving up just yet.

"We have a request in [to Microsoft] to create a tool ... I have been working with Microsoft pretty much nonstop for the last two or three weeks," Scott M. Simpson, senior network engineer at Carmelbased MidAmerica Computer Corp.

Simpson, whose professional certifications soak up an impressive 21-characters on his business card, has been exchanging e-mails with Microsoft techs that would confound the National Security Agency.

"The suggestion I got from our EE was to try tweaking the appointment with OOM from a client in the desired time zone. The code I sent prior should provide a starting point," wrote the Microsoft engineer.

Bleeding from the nose and ears yet?

"It's too early to give specifics but we are working closely with customers to determine what we can do to meet their DST issues, as we appreciate the pain that IT departments feel around this issue," a Microsoft spokesman told IBJ.

Mercifully, Microsoft already publishes an article-No. 906864--on its Help and Support site, better known as: "How to change the time zone without changing the times of your appointments in Outlook 2003."

The process consists of exporting the data in the calendar folder, changing the time-zone setting and then importing data back into Outlook 2003. Microsoft has separate articles for Outlook 2002 and 2000, of course.

But this process takes 29 steps-assuming you get it right the first time.

"This is the cumbersome manual solution to changing the time zone at each individual workstation. This will work for an individual user but it is not practical for a large corporation," Langham's Cornejo said.

But wait-it might not work, anyway.

"Our tests have found that even that process doesn't work," said Steve Tally, information technology communications manager at Purdue University. At least it didn't work to Purdue's satisfaction when it tested the Microsoft procedure, discovering that some material, such as lists of people invited to meetings, didn't survive the procedure.

Even Purdue eggheads can't fix it? Heaven help us.

What some techs most want is a fix they can make inside Microsoft Exchange, which runs e-mail servers. That way they can push out the fix to all computers in the network rather than fiddle with PCs individually.

Many computer techs around town said they remain hopeful Bill Gates' disciples can pull off a miracle, but even if they do it's probably too late.

Cornejo said he's concerned some organizations haven't thought much at all about potential computer problems stemming from the time change. He said a contact at the state, which by some counts has at least 16 e-mail servers supporting nearly 70 agencies, didn't appear worried. That person "didn't even know about the problem and some insist there won't be one."

A spokesman for the state's Office of Information Technology said officials are well aware of the time-related computer issues, though he declined to say what procedures were underway to prevent problems.

"We're getting very rapidly to a decision point" for companies, said David Goodwin, owner of MidAmerica Computer, noting the hours it will take to prepare a solution.

One Indianapolis manufacturer said it couldn't wait for a possible patch from Microsoft, Goodwin said, and has decided to launch a training program for employees to deal with the Outlook calendar issues.

Purdue isn't waiting, either. It also is developing instructions for changing the time clock on PCs; only about 10 percent of the campus is supported by a central network that could make the change automatically.

Purdue plans to post the procedures at www.itap.purdue.eduby March 22, when it may ask some users to attempt to make the time change.

As for what happens with portable computer devices, such as personal digital assistants, the picture is somewhat murky. Some of these are synched with cell phone towers, which will adjust the time automatically. Others, like Black-Berry devices, will have to be reset manually-a big task for a company like Baker & Daniels, which has more than 300 of the devices.

"Computers and electronic devices are so pervasive in our lives these days. So many have calendar functionality and are time-dependant," Tally said. "It's an interesting situation. As far as I know, [Indiana is] about the only place that's gone through this."

Simple precautions

In the meantime, there are some steps to take now to stay on schedule in the event of an electronic calendar Armageddon.

"If you have any meetings, appointments ... already entered for a date after April 2, go to each of those entries and add the intended time for the meeting to the subject line," Goodwin said in a letter to clients. "This will act as a safeguard, no matter what other steps you take, and we recommend you continue to do so until April 2."

Or you could go low-tech.

Not that she lacks confidence in her IT crew, but Langham CEO Cathy Langham, who has numerous recurring meetings already scheduled for 2006, wants to put everything on paper.

"I asked my assistant to, just before the time change, print out my calendar for the rest of the year," she said.

Good idea, said Stephenson. "We're encouraging everybody to print out their calendar-before you change the time on your PC."

There's a sweet irony here for those who opposed the hotly debated time zone change pushed by Gov. Mitch Daniels and approved by the Legislature last year: The very business executives who argued for time change, including Langham, are now facing computer headaches as a result.

One reason she supported the time change was to simplify shipping procedures for customers who had to have freight ready an hour early for six months each year as surrounding states changed clocks back and forth.

"Even if it is a hassle, even if we have to change some of this manually, I think it's a small price to pay," Langham said.
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