The year 2000 is just around the corner. As some people look forward to a new and brighter millenium, others prophesize about the Second Coming, or the apocalypse. While these prophecies may be ignored by many, they might not be too far off base. The year 2000 may not bring an end to the physical world; however, it may cause great havoc to the world’s computing industry.
The year 2000 problem (or “Y2K” as it is often referred to) is not really a bug or virus, but is a computer industry mistake. Personal computers (PCs), mainframes, and software are not designed or programmed to compute a future year ending in double zeros (“00”). This is going to be a costly “fix” for the industry to absorb. In fact, Mike Elgan, editor of Windows Magazine, says, . . . the problem could cost businesses a total of $600 billion to remedy(Experts Elgan).
Y2K has become a two-part problem. One is the inability of the computer to adapt to the MM/DD/YY issue, while the second problem is the unwillingness of many people to see the impact it will have. Most IS (information system) specialists are either unconcerned or unprepared.
In order to fix the year 2000 computer problem and its impact, one must fully understand what this problem is. Back in the 1960’s, programmers decided to store the year of dates as two digits instead of four in order to save much needed space and cut costs. So the year “1998” would be stored as “98” and “2000” will be stored as “00.” These two-digit dates will be on millions of files used as input for millions of applications. This two-digit date affects data manipulation, mainly subtractions and comparisons (Doomsday Jager). For instance, Joe was born in 1957. If the computer was asked to calculate how old Joe is today, it subtracts 57 from 98 and reports that he is 41. This calculation is correct. In the year 2000 however, the computer will subtract 57 from 00 and say that he is -57 years old.
Many owners of home computers feel this “bug” won’t affect their personal computer but it’s expected that up to 80% of all personal PC’s will fail when the year 2000 arrives. More than 80,000,000 PC’s will be shut down December 31, 1999 with no problems as workers leave their office for the weekend. However, on January 1, 2000, some 80,000,000 PCs will fail as systems are turned on and “booted up” (Believe Jager).
Fixing the problem seems to be difficult a difficult task, as all applications from spreadsheets to email will be affected. Should an individual replace his current computer with one that is Year 2000 compatible or simply replace the RTC (Real Time Clock), the BIOS, or the OS? Even if the hardware problem is fixed is all the software used may not be adequate to make the transition.
The answers to these questions and others like these cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” For one thing, the “leading experts” in the computer world cannot agree that there is even a problem, let alone discuss the extent to which it will impact society and the business world. CNN correspondent Jed Duvall illustrates another possible “problem” scenario. Suppose someone on the East Coast, at 2 minutes after midnight in New York City on January 1, 2000 decides to make a call to a friend in California, where it is still 1999 because of the time zone difference. With the current configurations in the phone company’s computers, the New Yorker will be billed from ‘00 to ‘99, a phone call lasting for 99 years (Duvall).
Say a deposit of $100 was made into a savings account that pays 5% interest annually. The following year the depositor decides to close the account. The bank computer figures the $100 was there for one year at 5% interest, yielding $105, simple enough. What happens though, if the money is not withdrawn before the year 2000? The computer will re-do the calculation exactly the same way. The money was in the bank from ’95 to ’00. That’s ’00 minus ’95, which equals a negative 95 (-95). That’s -95 years at 5% interest. That is a little bit more than $10,000, and because of the minus sign, it is going to subtract that amount from the account. The depositor now owes the bank $9,900.
No industry is immune to this problem; it is a cross-platform problem. This is a problem that will affect personal computers, minicomputers, and mainframe computers. A system that is devised to cut an annual federal deficit to “0” by the year 2002 is already in hot water. Data entered into the program will be miscalculated, resulting in inaccurate numbers as they just won’t add up.” Public health information and surveillance at all levels of local, state, federal, and international public health, which are dependent upon dates for epidemiological (study of disease occurrence, location, and duration) and health statistics reasons, are also targets of Y2K. Since date of events, duration between events, and other calculations such as age of people are core epidemiological and health statistic requirements, this field may suffer great damage (Seligman). In addition to this, public health authorities are usually dependent upon the primary data providers such as physician practices, laboratories, hospitals, managed care organizations, and outpatient centers etc., as the source for original data upon which public health decisions are based. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for example, maintains over 100 public health surveillance systems all of which are dependent upon external sources of data (Issa). This basically means that it is not going to be sufficient to make the internal systems compliant to the year 2000 in order to address all of the details of this issue. Consider the following scenario: in April, 2000, a hospital sends an electronic surveillance record to the local or state health department reporting the death of an individual who was born in the year 00; is this going to be a case of infant mortality or death from old age?
Contraire to many beliefs, there are no quick fixes or what everyone refers to as the Silver Bullet. The Silver Bullet is the terminology used to represent the creation of an automatic fix for the Y2K problem. There are two major problems with this theory. First, there are too many variations from hardware to software of different types to think that a “fix all” solution can be found. Tools such as clock simulators can run a system with a simulated clock date and can use applications that append or produce errors when the year 2000 arrives; while date finders search across applications on specific date criteria, and browsers can help users perform large volume code inspection. However, as good as all these automated tools are, there are no Silver Bullets or quick fixes. It will take old-fashioned work hours by personnel in order to make this transition smooth and efficient.
Second, the general population, by thinking that there is such a fix or that one can be created rather quickly and easily, is creating situations where people are putting off addressing the problem due to the reliance of the “cure-all”. The “sure someone will fix it” type attitude fills the industry and the population, making this problem more serious than it already is (Believe Jager). People actually think that a program will start running on Friday night and fix the Y2K problem by the time Monday morning comes around. Nobody has to do anything else, the problem poses no more threat, and it has been solved. To quote Peter Jager, who is recognized internationally as the leader in Year 2000 awareness:
Such a tool would be wonderful. Such a tool would be worth billions of dollars. Such a tool, is a naive pipe dream. Could someone come close? Not very … Could something reduce this problem by 90%? I don’t believe so. Could it reduce the problem by 50%? Possibly … but I still don’t believe so. Could it reduce the workload by 30%? Quite likely. (Biting Jager)
How will this affect society and the industry in 2000? How stable will software design companies be as more and more competitors offer huge “incentives” for people to leave their current jobs and go work for another company on their problems? As more and more businesses decide to confront this problem, the demand for computer programmers is expected to skyrocket. Recruitment will be at an all time high. Some estimates report that programmers, especially those experienced in the COBOL programming language, are expected to make between $150,000 and $200,000 a year for their knowledge in combating Y2K. Some experts even feel that IS specialists will be able to name their price, as companies will pay any price to keep their business afloat. Competition will be fierce as the race to market a solution to combat Y2K continues. Liability issues may arise if a company withdraws an offer on a deal because of a computer glitch. Predictions say that the stock market will decline 40% in 1998-99 as concerns over the viability of the banking system and the ability of governments to deliver basic services will panic investors. In addition, the U.S. income tax system will be simplified with a form of flat tax because IRS computers will not be functional in 2000, causing changes in the tax code (Westergaard). This is a wide spread scenario because the Y2K problem will affect all these elements and more.
Due to society’s dependence on computers, the failure of the systems to operate correctly can mean anything from minor inconveniences to major catastrophes. These include licenses and permits not issued, payroll and social service checks not cut, personnel, medical and academic records malfunctioning, errors in banking and finance, accounts not paid or received, inventory not maintained, weapon systems malfunctioning; the list goes on. It is highly unlikely that an individual will be unaffected by Y2K. The Gartner Group, a product development company focused on mid-level technology applications, has made the following estimates: At $450 to $600 per affected computer program, it is estimated that a medium size company will spend from $3.6 to $4.2 million to make the software conversion. The cost per line of code is estimated to be $.80 to $1. Viasoft, which helps Fortune 1000 and similarly sized organizations worldwide understand, manage and develop the software applications that run their businesses, has seen program conversion cost rise to $572 to $1,204. Andersen Consulting, a global management and technology consulting organization, estimates that it will take them more than 12,000 working days to correct its existing applications. Estimates for the correction of this problem in the United States alone is around $50 to $75 billion (ITAA).
Is it possible to eliminate the problem? Probably not, but the transition can be made much smoother with cooperation and the right approach. Companies and government agencies must understand the nature of the problem. Ignoring the obvious is not the way to approach this problem. To assume that the problem will be corrected when the system is replaced is a judgement that may cost companies a lot of money. Correcting the situation may not be so difficult as it will be time consuming. For instance, the Social Security Administration estimates that it will spend “300 man-years finding and correcting these date references in their information systems – systems representing a total of 30 million lines of code” (ITAA).
One of the largest software manufacturing corporations, Microsoft, is very aware of its customer concerns with MS products. They claim they have been thinking about the year 2000 problem since day one. They claim with the initial MS-DOS operating system, Microsoft incorporated the capability to handle dates well into the next century. Microsoft say Windows 95 and Windows NT are capable of supporting dates up until the year 2099, and recommend upgrading all Microsoft products to at least the 1997 releases. Microsoft further states that its development tools and database management systems provide the flexibility for the user to represent dates in many different ways (Microsoft). Proper training of developers to use date formats that accommodate the transition to the year 2000 is very important.
So is everyone affected? Apparently not. After a brief discussion with a technician of EZL DOT COM, an Internet-Access provider based in Edwardsville, I found out that they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the year 2000. They had enough foresight to make sure that when they purchased their equipment and related software, that it would all be year 2000 compliant. This company shows that this “bug” can be beaten. The key is to become informed and to stay informed. Affect the changes you can now, and look to remedy those that you cannot. The year 2000 will be a roller coaster for many businesses, but EZL DOT COM seem to have it under control and are holding party hats in one hand and the mouse in the other.
As is obviously clear from the information presented, Y2K is a problem to be taken seriously. The wide range of systems (OS) and software on the market lead many to believe the idea that a silver bullet fix will cure this “media hyped catastrophe.” This is not however, a hopeless problem. Proper training and design is needed, as well as numerous man-hours to effect the repairs needed to overcome the problems that will undoubtedly occur if no action is taken. The “sit back and wait for a cure-all” approach will not work. Action should have been taken 10 years ago. Whatever may happen, January 1, 2000 will be an interesting time full of headaches and setbacks for some and a relief for others. Hopefully the necessary “repairs” will be made and the word will be passed on to the others who may be taking this a little too lightly. It may not be a matter of life or death, but it sure could mean your job and financial future.
Duvall, Jed. The year 2000 does not compute. Online.
Http://cnn.com/news/TECH/9601/2000/index.html. 3 Nov. 1996.
Elgan, Mike. Experts bemoan the denial of ‘2000 bug’. Online.
Http://cnn.com/TECH/9610/13/year.2000.bug/index.html. 13 Oct. 1996.
EZL DOT COM Technical Support. “Are you year 2000 compliant?” E-mail to the
author. 3 Feb. 1998.
ITAA. The Year 2000 Software Conversion: Issues and Observations. Online.
Http://www.itta.org/yr2000-1.htm. 7 Nov. 1996.
Jager, Peter de. “Believe me it’s real! Early Warning.” Online.
Http://www.year2000.com/archive/Nfbelieveme.html. 4 Nov. 1996
— Biting the Silver Bullet. Online. Http://www.year2000.com/archive/Nfbullet.html.
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—. DOOMSDAY 2000. Computer World. 6 Sept. 1993: n. pag. Online. Internet.
2 Nov. 1996. Available Http://www.year2000.com/archive/NFcw-article.html.
Microsoft. “Year 2000 Frequently Asked Questions.” Online
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Health Information and Surveillance Systems.
Http://www.cdc.gov/y2k/year2000.htm. 9 Nov. 1996.