Low-Tech Clock is Ticking for High-Tech Bugs

(Note: This article originally appeared in Newsday on 09/19/97.)

Surely by now you've heard of the Year 2000 Bug, the impending hi-tech apocalypse that seems remarkably like the most absurd Dilbert scenario come horribly to life. ATMs going haywire. Power stations crashing. Bank accounts vanishing. Billing systems racking up huge charges. Factories shutting down. Elevators plummeting like the stock prices of those factories.

And all because in the early days of computing, when computer memory was scarce and expensive and the millenium seemed as far away as Mars, some programmers adopted the technique of using only the last two digits of the year when recording a date in an effort to conserve space. Now, when 1999 turns to 2000, many computer systems won't be able to correctly recognize the date, and as a consequence, they'll stop working. The whole world could come to a standstill.

But don't just blame the problem on the geeks. When those first programmers started abbreviating dates, there were only a few hundred computers in the world. How were they to know that computers and embedded microprocessors would one day control everything from Trident missiles to sprinkler systems?

Which is simply to say, even if you've never touched a mouse or a keyboard in your life, you've probably been using computers every day for at least the last two decades. We've all benefited immensely from such technology over the years, and now we may have to pay.

Unless you happen to be a consultant or a lawyer, that is. Or an investor buying up stock in companies specializing in the problem. Then you'll just keep benefiting. Year 2000 consultants are landing lucrative speaking engagements, writing books on the subject, and even peddling Year 2000 t-shirts and phone cards. Lawyers are avaraciously anticipating a trillion-dollar litigation fest - software vendors, manufacturers that use embedded microprocessors in their products, and companies that haven't disclosed the full implications of their Year 2000 dilemmas all at risk of lawsuits. Stock-market speculators are driving up prices of once-obscure companies to phenomenal levels. The stock of ZMAX, a software developer that has created a computer program that scans other programs for Year2000 errors, has risen over 500% in the past year, even while losing close to $14 million from January 1996 to April 1997.

But it's not just hi-tech companies like ZMAX that speculators should be investing in. Savvy market-players might also want to consider a few low-tech concerns, like bicycle and typewriter manufacturers, and even candlemakers. Because while many companies have begun to address their Year 2000 problems, there's simply not enough time left to fix all the programs that need fixing. Some experts say that only half the programs in need of attention will get it - and that doesn't even take all of the embedded microprocessors contained in things like cars and VCRs into account.

And according to the Connecticut-based Gartner Group, a high-tech industry marketing analyst, the cost to fix all the programs in the U.S. that need fixing will approach $600 billion. Other analysts have predicted that up to 5% of the nation's businesses could go bankrupt trying to make their systems work correctly. The Federal government alone has 4500 computers programs it must fix, at a cost which it estimates at around $3 billion but which analysts say is likelier to fall in the $20 - $30 billion range.

In addition to the cost, there's simply the issue of time and resources. Much of the code that needs to be repaired is written in older computer languages that today's programmers aren't familiar with - and don't want to bother to learn because they see it as a career dead-end. Currently, the manpower shortarge is so pronounced, an Assistant Director of a consulting group called Taskforce 2000 has even suggested training the homeless to help address the problem. Another more plausible scenario entails coaxing old programmers out of retirement with hourly fees of up to $200. But do we really want to entrust the solution to the people who created the problem in the first place?

As the digital doomsday nears, an adequate way to fix the problem seems less and less likely. While Pope John Paul II, the Rev. Franklin Graham (son of Billy), and sundry other millenarians have hinted at a Second Coming that will make computer concerns incidental, it seems somewhat imprudent to depend upon the punctual arrival of Jesus, whose record of missing announced deadlines is surpassed only by Microsoft.

And so the question arises - why the rush to the year 2000? Why not turn the clocks back, say, five years, in a kind of mega Daylight Savings Time technique? In 1999, we simply declare it 1995 again, and give all the companies struggling to fix their systems a little extra time to make the necessary changes. In the meantime, the rest of us could catch up on our own affairs, and enjoy what's left of the 20th century that much longer.

-- G. Beato

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