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Heading toward the software confusion millenium

At the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, millions of people will raise their champagne glasses to toast a new millenium. But while the bubbly flows, a real drama will unfold in darkened offices and factories around the world, as millions of computers and other electronic devices simply shut down in confusion.
This is the scenario the world faces if nothing is done in the next 617 days to remedy the year 2000 problem, or the "Y2K Problem", as it has been nicknamed by software experts, many of whom are already beginning to realize that the solution will neither be as simple nor as inexpensive as they originally thought.


Apocalypse now. All old data processors are unable to recognize the year 2000 because only the last two digits (00) were programmed into memory. Thus the year 2000 becomes 1900 in the computer world.

At the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, millions of people will raise their champagne glasses to toast a new millenium. But while the bubbly flows, a real drama will unfold in darkened offices and factories around the world, as millions of computers and other electronic devices simply shut down in confusion.

This is the scenario the world faces if nothing is done in the next 617 days to remedy the year 2000 problem, or the "Y2K Problem", as it has been nicknamed by software experts, many of whom are already beginning to realize that the solution will neither be as simple nor as inexpensive as they originally thought.

So what exactly is it that will cause all computers to go haywire on the first second of the year 2000? Two bytes, that's all. But these two bytes are the hottest candidates to become the most maligned bytes in the history of the computerized world.

When computer date storage data were originally standardized, the current year was limited to two digits, or two bytes. For example, the date December 31st, 1999 would be represented by the digits 31 12 99. When the day rolls over to January 1st, 2000, the date will be stored as 01 01 00. To human brains it might be obvious that the "00" stands for the year 2000, but to computers noggins, the "00" will probably mean the year 1900.

The problem becomes more tangible when we take the simple computation of a person's age. If the age of a person born in 1945 is computed in 2000, one should get the result of 55 years (2000 minus 1945). But computers will come up with the figure of minus 45 years (00 minus 45 equals -45), meaning that all hell may break loose.

But hell has already been unleashed, according to Ivan Doboš with Gratex International's Bratislava office, a company which is trying to direct the public's attention to this problem. Doboš mentioned an event that occured a couple of months ago at an aluminum producing plant in New Zealand. A technician inspected one operation, labeled it as functional, set its expiration date at January 2000 and entered the information into the plant's computerized system. Suddenly the operation deactivated itself because for the computer, the expiration date - the year 1900 - had long passed.

How does this problem affect the average person? Computers have quietly taken over the lives of billions of people, most of whom are unaware of the scope of the change. The Economist weekly, a London-based business and financial newspaper, wrote that the effects will be felt in "most elements of everyday life: electricity, gas and water supplies, telephone services, banking systems, health services, transport and industry are all at risk if [this computer bug] is not caught in time."

"It is projected that 50 percent of all businesses in Europe will not be prepared for the year 2000, and that more than 30 percent of all application software in use today is 10 or more years old, some as old as 20 years," said Elena Akácsová of Gratex International.

Doboš painted an even grimmer picture. "It is assumed that 20 to 40 percent of all microprocessors that are produced today are not ready for the year 2000," he said. "Estimates for the solution to this problem run at more than $200 billion in Europe alone, and all that for computers not doing anything more or better than they do today, only for them being able to continue to do it after the year 2000."

But The Economist warned that the time for a remedy has already passed and cannot be recovered, no matter how much money is spent. "To wipe out the bug could cost almost $100 billion - in theory, that is, because it would be impossible to spend that much money in the time remaining," the weekly wrote. "Now it is simply a matter of minimizing the chaos."

That chaos can prove deadly for many. "Mike Smith, a senior doctor and computer expert at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London reckons that if even only 10 percent of the NHS's computers break down, up to 1,500 patients might die while the machines are being fixed," the magazine claimed.

Not a rosy picture indeed. On the day of issue of this edition of The Slovak Spectator, the display on one of the Earth's least welcome countdown clocks said 617...

Next month's Technology Watch will focus on possible solutions for the Year 2000 problem. For those who are too impatient to wait for The Spectator's May 21 edition, here are some web sites devoted to the problem:

http://www.microsoft.com/ithome/topics/year2k/default.htm
http://www.ibm.com/YEAR2000
http://www.software.ibm.com/ad/va2000/y2k/
http://www.software.ibm.com/year2000/tools21.html
http://www.ispo.cec.be/y2keuro/
http://www.year2000.com/

Peter Floyd can be reached by e-mail at: peterfloyd@yahoo.com

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