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Crash Landing

Forty percent of small businesses have yet to prepare for the Y2K computer crisis. Even if yours isn't one of them, you're not immune to bug bytes.

In a wired world where computers control everything from coffee makers to electric-power grids, and businesses, government agencies and public utilities are meshed in a complex, increasingly interdependent network of relationships, computer malfunctions related to the year 2000 (Y2K) could conceivably impact every business on earth, regardless of technological sophistication.

For a homebased business owner, preparing for the new millennium means ensuring that systems supporting the daily operations of your business, such as PCs and credit card verification readers, are Y2K-compliant. You need to make sure the microcomputer chips or software programs that control these devices won't malfunction at the turn of the century.

At the same time, you should understand that the source of most post-millennial business interruptions will be outside your business as a result of the Y2K bug's effect on infrastructure: telephone communications, power and other services vital to the survival of a business. Ed Yourdon, co-author of Time Bomb 2000: What the Year 2000 Computer Crisis Means to You! (Prentice Hall Computer Books), cautions that the practical issues of preparing a business for the year 2000 can obscure a business owner's view of the big picture. "Problems with PCs are irrelevant if the lights go out, you don't get a dial tone or the [banks' computers] go down," says Yourdon. "You're out of business--it's as simple as that. It doesn't matter if your PC works or not."

Imagine this scenario: You run a homebased mail order business equipped with a handful of fairly new PCs that you've tested and found to be Y2K-compliant. When you open for business on the first Monday of the new millennium, you find your phones are dead, presumably as a result of a Y2K-related malfunction affecting the phone company's computer system. Without a phone, you have no way of accepting orders from customers, contacting vendors to restock, using your credit card terminal, accessing the Internet, or even ordering a pizza. That's not to say phones are more vulnerable to the Y2K bug than other utilities, but the example demonstrates that a small or homebased business is very much like a house of cards: Remove one card from the wrong place, and the whole structure can come tumbling down.

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