y2k – the year 2000 issue (1999)

I have lost track of how many ‘virus alerts’ I’ve received in my email. Countless of them are hoaxes – unknowingly perpetrated by best friends who feel I need looking after. These hoaxes are yet another kind of computer blight, so I have numbed to their warnings.
But this year’s big issue is the millennium bug. Everything with a chip that wonders what the date is, threatens to disrupt life and business. The governments say so, the experts say so and soon our best friends will be telling us to do something about it. And when you can’t trust friends, there is no knowing who to believe.

A survey by Greenwich Mean Time, one of the leading providers of fixes for Year 2000 issues, bears this out. Speaking to small and medium sized businesses, they asked why they hadn’t dealt with the problem sooner. Of the replies, 23% said they didn’t understand the problem, 17% thought that the computer industry would fix it for them while 19% though that their computer was too new to be affected. Sweeping through the remaining replies, some thought it didn’t affect them, that it was a hardware problem, or that the government would fix it were it that serious. Around 5% thought the whole thing was a scam.

According to GMT, who report in detail at their web site, the hardware side of the ‘bug’ is just one of five ‘layers’ of the PC that can be affected. Age has a lot to do with it as 93% of PCs made in 1996 will fail to correctly change the system date come the new year. While 11% of early ’98 models also fail, the hardware is just 1% of the overall problem.

One of the villains is the operating system itself. Reassuringly, if the hardware feeds the operating system a duff date, such as 1900, it will try to correct it. However, very old systems do this too but settle on a year such as 1980 – the default date that DOS used to set in the days before the real time clock. In other cases, downloadable patches (from Microsoft) will correct a minor date display snag in Window’s file managers. The control panel’s ‘Regional Settings’ are also worth checking to see that the date styles show as ‘dd/mm/yyyy’ rather than ‘dd/mm/yyyy’.

But as most reports show, the real villain is application software. It could not be otherwise: our culture uses two digits to represent the year and those who write software share our same habits. In the 1960’s, when computer memory was expensive, dates were coded with a one-digit year – this led to a ‘decade bug’ as 1970 approached. But today software is ubiquitous and the two-digit habit is endemic. GMT say they have found 4000 packages which exhibit a date problem of some kind. In fact, their ‘Check 2000′ product uses this intelligence to scan a system and match packages and version numbers against a huge database listing rogue titles. Alarmingly there are many big name packages to point the finger at – some of which are poised to misunderstand ’00’ as the new century, and some to go awry when February 29th appears.

Most intriguingly even the data we have on our machines is another layer of the year 2000 problem. Over time, we have created countless documents, spreadsheets, macros and databases using two digit years. These in turn are subject to inconsistent interpretation by applications. For example a spreadsheet application might treat a two-digit date as falling between 1920 and 2019. This means that a two-digit year such as ’20’ could be treated as 1920 or 2020 depending on the ‘century window’ that the application uses – different programs make different assumptions.

Finally, GMT warn about a ‘data sharing layer’ where documents and spreadsheets, the very currency of computers, are passed from one disc to another. Just as we are ever alert to viruses transmitted by disc or the Internet, so we will need be as alert to picking up say, a spreadsheet whose only crime is to contain two-digit years. In the light of this, don’t be surprised if, come the millennium, paranoia leads employers to put a sort-of document firewall around their systems and prevent the most basic data sharing.

As people say, the year 2000 issue is ‘big’. The two-digit date is ubiquitous. It is part of sell-by dates, serial numbers, key fields in databases and the more I know the more worrying it gets – not least because another business opportunity has passed me by. Henceforth I’ll be checking all my friendly virus alerts, year 2000 alerts and junk mail just in case I miss something. (Roger Frost 1999)

Information about the Y2K issue can be found at the Greenwich Mean Time web site www.gmt-2000.com. Their solutions include Check 2000, which finds and flags issues as well as fix a variety of date problems. For details contact GMT, Meridian Barn Wick Road, Fareham, Hampshire PO17 5BN.

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