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Y2K Bug

Y2K BUG

The phrase "Y2K bug" stood for the range of potentially adverse effects on computer systems of the rollover from the year 1999 to 2000. Within that definition, however, there were a wide range of questions, concerns, and solutions. The two-digit date-storage system posed its problem in the computer's recognition of time and its logical implications. Computers that already assumed the "19" and read and manipulated only the last two digits would naturally read the new date as "1900." Nobody knew for certain how this rollover would affect various systems, but few were willing to take chances. In the late 1990s, businesses, governments, organizations, individuals, and just about every other entity that depended on computer systems scrambled to render their systems Y2K-compliant, spending billions of dollars in the process.

Fears ranged from the relatively mundane (lost e-mail) to the costly (disruption of service or lost records) to the catastrophic (unpredictable computer responses at air-traffic controls and even nuclear facilities). One factor adding to the concern was the result of the increasingly networked nature of modern life. With computer systems interconnected with each other across state and national boundaries, analysts feared the potential snowball effects of moderate problems in local systems as they spread through wider networks. As wide-ranging as the concerns, however, were the reactions to the eventor noneventas the crucial date came and went.

ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM

The underlying problemthe inability of computers to read years rendered in four digitsseems almost a foolish and short-sighted blunder, but there was good reason for the two-digit date system. Computer programmers were faced with the daunting task of providing for adequate computer memory at an affordable cost. In the early days of computing technology, memory was expensive and logistically difficult, and thus designers needed to cut corners where they could. In the 1950s and 1960s, the most sophisticated computer-memory systems utilized strips of costly punched cardboard. Programmers at the time opted to save space and money on those cards by rendering dates in only six digits rather than eight (as in "01-01-00" rather than "01-01-2000"). At the time, few programmers considered the possibility that such memory programs would last until the end of the century.

Soon, however, scientists and programmers adapted their own systems to this programming technique, called common business-oriented language (COBOL). In this way, the problem that would eventually be referred to as the Y2K bug spread through computing systems by the sheer act of rendering computers compliant with each other. By the end of the 1960s, IBM, the leading computer maker of the day, had effectively codified the Y2K bug as part of the dominant programming language. Once this de facto standard was set, other computer makers and programmers followed suit.

Ironically, one of the main writers of the COBOL program, IBM programmer Robert Bemer, was among the first to sound the alarm of an eventual Y2K crisis clear back in 1971. However, with the crucial date still nearly thirty years away and the problem so remote from programmers' everyday concerns, Bemers's warning went unheeded. In fact, by that time Bemer had even written a program that allowed eight-digit date listing, but the priorities for programmers and manufacturers were elsewhere, and the six-digit standard blossomed.

Interest in the topic was largely shelved until the early 1990s, when a handful of younger programmers, such as the IBM computer operator Peter de Jager, began speaking and posting Web sites on the topic. By the middle of the decade, awareness of Y2K had reached most major organizations, including corporations and governments, who set about convening task forces to study the problem and ready their systems for it. By the late 1990s, the Y2K bug was a hot topic of popular concern, generating miles of newsprint and far-ranging speculation, some of it reaching the apocalyptic. There was in fact some evidence for the grave predictions. In 1993, nuclear monitors at NORAD rolled their clocks forward to see what would happen on January 1, 2000. To their surprise, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) alert system crashed.

Popular concernand occasionally hysteriawith the Y2K bug fed, and was fed by, cultural and religious fears involving the year 2000, which some felt would mark large-scale catastrophes and other shattering phenomena. The mountain of information and rumors circulating on the Internet about Y2K took on a life of its own, generating a small industry devoted to Y2K survival, geared toward a situation in which society's sustaining computer systems were inoperative. Adding to the mix were the conspiracy theorists, who remained skeptical of the whole affair, seeing it as a product of the agenda of powerful forces. While such factors normally don't reach the level of mainstream consideration, the coalescence of these factors with the Y2K bugwhich the business world, after all, was certainly taking seriouslyproduced a second life for the Y2K bug.

THE CRISIS COMES AND GOES

But in the months leading up to the crucial rol-lover, no one could say with any certainty just what the Y2K bug's effects would be. While some insisted the whole phenomenon was much ado about nothing, others warned of potentially costly and disruptive side effects if companies, organizations, governments, and individuals didn't work to ready their own systems. Most groups chose to play it safe, investing hefty sums to purchase Y2K-compliance software or hire outside consultants to root through their systems and fix any potential trouble spots. In the process, an enormous Y2K industry was spawned. Estimates of total U.S. Y2K expenditures reached into the hundreds of billions of dollars, while the worldwide total topped $600 billion. According to Peter de Jager, the U.S. government alone spent $8.34 billion on year-2000 compliance.

As midnight on December 31, 1999 approached, businesses and governments all over the world maintained staff on-call, ready to respond at a moment's notice should catastrophe strike. Cisco Systems Inc., for example, kept nearly half of their 22,000 employees on call during the rollover.

Finally, the crucial date came and went, and to the surprise of many, virtually nothing happenedcertainly nothing on the order of the more dire predictions. The extent to which the Y2K bug's benign effects were the result of vigilant compliance measures or of the bug's relatively benign nature was a matter of debate, and commentators had yet to reach consensus on the matter even two years later. There were glitches, even in some major systems. For instance, a U.S. military satellite surveillance system went down and wasn't recovered for several weeks. But on the whole, the extent of preparationto say nothing of the newsprint and hysteriaseemed vastly out of proportion with the event itself.

IN HINDSIGHT

As a result, the early 2000s were marked by nearly as much Y2K debate as were the late 1990s, but of a very different nature. Analysts, business executives, and IT experts all offered their own takes on exactly what occurred and why, and assessed the benefits and drawbacks of the extensive technological preparation. Gartner Group, for instance, held that the catastrophe-free rollover was a product of the extensive and successful preparation companies undertook; Gartner Group analyst Dale Vecchio remarked, "people didn't spend $300 billion on a problem that didn't exist."

Some commentators noted that, in addition to the economic benefits of the new software expenditures, the phenomenon of businesses moving all at once to upgrade their software was a boon to the emerging Internet economy, since the new systems were vastly more likely to be able to accommodate the Internet's heavy, interactive traffic. In this way, such analysts noted, more or less all at once entire industries were upgraded for e-commerce. In the absence of such a crisis, the pace of such an upgrade would have been much slower, and would not have occurred with such simultaneitysome industries would make the transition much more quickly than others, for exampleand thus seamless e-commerce readiness would have been postponed. In addition, some analysts noted that the Y2K crisis forced companies to reconsider the role of technology in their businesses, inspiring executives to involve their information officers in strategic planning to an unprecedented extent. In the wake of the Y2K crisis, companies were also more likely to develop continuity plans that will enable them to continue functioning in the event of technology failures.

By forcing companies to overhaul their information-technology systems and purge antiquated hardware and software, the Y2K bug may have sped IT's evolutionary process along. For instance, Business Week reported that, largely as a result of the Y2K crisis, by 2000 hotels such as Marriott International Inc. featured computer and Internet connectivity in each room, where that was seldom the case just a few years earlier. At DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, the $260 million investment into Y2K fixes resulted in the purging of some 15,000 outdated computers; the replacement of these systems with state-of-the-art technology allowed the company to link two-thirds of its plants to the same network, thereby greatly enhancing internal efficiency and supply chain management. Companies were most likely to have their entire personnel online and feature electronic customer service systems, all of which are essential for readying businesses for the Internet economy.

Not everyone was so charitable or positive about the benign effects of Y2K. Fortune, for instance, expressed indignation over the whole affair, insisting that the Y2K crisis was an overblown panic that caused businesses to waste billions of dollars, and going so far as to demand that those responsible for the fervorthe media, financial executives, and computer industry players who capitalized on the crisis, and those "professional Jeremiads" who made their names lecturing and writing on the severity of the problembe held accountable. To other analysts, the investment was not only a colossal waste, but an indication of the information-technology industry's inability to manageeconomically and otherwisecomputer-based risks.

Since companies and governments faced the threat of severe short-and long-term consequences if their systems weren't prepared, they had little choice but to devote whatever amounts were required to remedy their Y2K problems; cost wasn't the immediate consideration before making such an investment. As a result, organizations tied up vastly disproportionate percentages of their budgets to Y2K issues. International Data Corporation held that some of the consultants claiming responsibility for Y2K success would prove some of the ultimate victims of Y2K, as business executives reviewed their expenditures in the late 1990s and concluded that too much was spent on Y2K preparation at the expense of more important strategic programs.

FURTHER READING:

Bing, Stanley. "Oh, Sure. Now They're Sorry: Y2K Idiots Cost Business $500 billion! Is No One to be Punished?" Fortune, February 7, 2000.

"Bugging People." Economist, December 18, 1999.

Burke, Steven, and Pedro Pereira. "Industry Ponders Impact On Operations, Sales: As the Clock Ticks, Y2K Still a Puzzle." Computer Reseller News, November 30, 1998.

Hicks, Matt. "Did Y2K Consultants Cry Wolf?" PC Week, January 10, 2000.

Jones, Jennifer. "Y2K Bug Squashed, Feds Say." Network World, January 10, 2000.

"Panic Postponed." Economist, January 8, 2000.

Peters, Richard, and Robert Sikorski. "Y2K or Bust." Science, December 17, 1999.

Rash, Wayne. "Why the Y2K Problem was Good for You." InternetWeek, December 4, 2000.

Strassman, Paul A. "The Y2K Ransom." Computerworld, January 10, 2000.

"The Y2K Bug Repellent Wasn't a Waste." Business Week, January 17, 2000.

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Millennium Bug

Millennium Bug


The millennium bug refers to the existence in many computer software packages of a six-digit date rather than an eight-digit date. Computers speak the language of mathematics. Every question posed to a computer program is answered either "yes" or "no" and represented in binary code as either a one or a zero. Since computers recognize math symbols, a computer can add 97 + 1 and get 98. When the computer is presented the problem 99 + 1 and the answer does not fit in the required two-digit field, the computer's response is an error, or worse, a shut-down.

What caused this error in planning to occur? In the 1960s and 1970s, when computers were coming into widespread use, one of the largest concerns to programmers was the amount of memory available to the user. With this concern in mind, programmers searched for ways to cut memory requirements. Reducing dates to six digits (01/31/99, for example) rather than using the eight-digit international date (01/31/1999) was one way to decrease memory requirements. A second reason is that computers were so new and programmers were so inexperienced that they believed that any software produced in the 1960s and 1970s would be archaic by the 1980s and certainly long before the year 2000. They produced software designed to answer immediate needs, failing to predict that software programs would be used far longer than intended.

Many businesses and industries were impacted by the millennium bug. All entities that work from a mainframe were vulnerable, including many government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration among others. Any business or entity using personal computers (PCs) was vulnerable. Computer experts estimated that 93 percent of the PCs made before 1972 would fail. When PCs are part of a network, the risk of problems developing is much greater.

Many doomsday predictions were made prior to January 1, 2000. Books, videos, and web sites, all designed either to sell consumers the equipment needed to get them through the "apocalyptic" event or to warn computer users what to expect, began to appear. Almost weekly, newspaper articles were published reporting who had doneor had not donewhat to prepare and what types of tests had succeeded or failed. During the final week of 1999, local governments suggested that citizens stockpile drinking water. It was predicted that businesses dependent upon computer systems would fail. Some people feared runs on banks by panic-stricken people that would put the national economy at risk of collapsing. Public and private transportation would shut down due to fuel shortages resulting from delivery problems and electrical failures. Hospitals, governing agencies, the food industry, news, communications, and education were predicted to suffer due to the millennium bug.

The millennium bug dilemma appeared deceptively simple: After all, how difficult could it be to change programming to read a four-digit year rather than a two-digit year? The situation became more complex due to the magnitude of programs that needed to be changed. Every mainframe computer, every program created before 1995, the vast majority of PCs made before the mid-1990s, every microchip embedded in every car, every pacemakerall of these only begin a list of the things that could potentially be affected by the millennium bug. The challenge of fixing all of the potential problems before January 1, 2000, seemed impossible. Information technologists would have to check every system for compliance. The problem, which existed not just in the United States but across the entire globe, seemed astronomical.

At the end of 1999, the computer industry was expected to spend between $300 to $600 billion to deal with the problem. The director of the Millennium Watch Institute said: "Responsible estimates of what we collectively paid range from 250 gigabucks to 600 gigabucksenough to give $100 to every human alive. Another estimate mentions one terabuck as a reasonable figure." (A gigabuck is equivalent to one billion dollars and a terabuck is equivalent to one trillion dollars.)

So what did occur on January 1, 2000? A German businessman found an additional $6.2 million more dollars in his bank account than he truly had. A U.S. defense satellite was out of commission for three hours. Amtrak lost track of some trains until the date was reset in the company's computer system. A newborn baby in a Denmark hospital was registered as 100 years old. The doors on a federal building in Nebraska flew open. A government official in Slovenia was forced to resign for overemphasizing the potential problems of the millennium bug, and a few small inconveniences occurred elsewhere in the world. But amazingly, none of the predicted disasters came to pass. Some contend that the Y2K (Year 2000) problems were not severe due to the extensive upgrades that businesses and individual consumers made to their hardware and software prior to the date change.

Some good did come from the preparation. Many companies and government offices are now much more efficient and have developed better communication skills. Software quality has improved. Old hardware has been updated or replaced. Audits have been performed at many companies and agencies, leading to streamlining processes. Information technology experts have acquired much more precise knowledge of systems. According to experts, the modernization that came with the millennium bug preparation will bring economic gains. In the words of one columnist, the millennium bug preparation was "the greatest technological housecleaning of all time."

The extensive hardware and software upgrades by businesses and private citizens also meant that many technology firms saw greatly increased profits during that time. Once systems were Y2K compatible and the intense demand for new products and services decreased, some technology companies began to experience much lower sales and profits than expected in 2000 and 2001.

see also Computers and the Binary System.

Susan Strain Mockert

Bibliography

Chaney, Warren H. Y2K: A World in Crisis? Alvin, TX: SWAN Publishing, 1999.

Yourdon, Edward, and Jennifer Yourdon. Time Bomb 2000. Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall PTR, 1998.

Internet Resources

Y2K Media Watch. <http://ojr.usc.edu/content/y2k_briefs.cfm>.

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Year 2000 problem

Year 2000 problem, Y2K problem, or millennium bug, in computer science, a design flaw in the hardware or software of a computer that caused erroneous results when working with dates beyond Dec. 31, 1999. In the 1960s and 70s programmers who designed computer systems dropped the first two digits of a year when storing or processing dates to save what then was expensive and limited memory; such a system recorded the year 2000 as 00 and could not distinguish it from 1900. In sorting, comparison, and arithmetic operations, the year 2000 would be treated as if it were equivalent to 0 rather than 100, causing incorrect results. The algorithm used to calculate leap years was also in some cases invalid, creating an additional problem in calculating the correct date after Feb. 28, 2000. Because the designers of such computer systems expected them to be replaced before the beginning of the year 2000, using a two-digit date was not regarded as a problem. Thousands of older computer systems, called legacy systems, were still in use in the 1990s, however, particularly in the finance and insurance industries, creating a potential operational and financial nightmare, which was termed Doomsday 2000. In the late 1990s business, government, and other computer users spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars to correct the Year 2000 problem, and only minor problems were experienced after Jan. 1, 2000.

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Millennium bug

Millennium bug The problem faced by computer users when the year 2000 (y2k) was reached. Many accounting and database applications had, for years, used only two digits to represent the year in a date; i.e. they would use 31.12.99 to represent 31 December 1999. This would obviously give incorrect follow-on dates for 01.01.00, and incorrect sorting of records in date order. Another problem involved the BIOS giving incorrect dates after 31.12.99. A considerable amount of money and time was spent by companies preparing for y2k. Most problems were solved by new software issues or by patches to existing software, and the major disruption that many had predicted did not materialize.

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Y2K problem

Y2K problem or Y2K bug: see Year 2000 problem.

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y2k

y2k Abbrev. for year 2000. See Millennium bug.

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millennium bug

millennium bug: see Year 2000 problem.

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