“AT the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, the world will fall into utter chaos. Aeroplanes will plunge from the skies. Power grids around the world will fail. Elevators will fall to the Earth. Computer systems controlling the world’s nuclear arsenals will fail, triggering a nuclear holocaust.” Such were some of the rumours and stories floating around the Y2K issue.
GENESIS OF THE Y2K PROBLEM
The term Y2K is a shortened version of Year 2000 (the letter K is often used to denote 1000). The Y2K problem (or bug, as it is popularly referred to) is linked to the way computer programmers in the 70s and 80s denoted the year, when they were writing their computer programmes. Computer programmes are a set of instructions that programmers put together, that instructs a computer to perform specific functions. For many programmes an important part of the instructions are related to dates. They are particularly important in applications related to financial transactions (viz. in the banking industry) where the computer needs to be instructed about transactions to be carried out on particular dates.
The genesis of the programme dates back to the 1970s and 1980s when programmers used two digits to record dates — viz. 79 for 1979. The problem is that when such programmes are used by computers in 2000, the year will be denoted by the digits 00. The danger is that the computer will assume the date to be 1900 and not 2000! This may cause the computer to make wrong calculations. This shorthand (using two digits, rather than four to denote the year) was used by computer programmers because they were trying to conserve, what was then precious and scarce, computer “memory”. Since then these constraints have been removed because computers have much more memory available, and can hence process larger amounts of data and can hence also be given much more detailed instructions. For example, typically, a computer of the seventies had a memory of less than one million bytes — i.e. it could run programmes with less than one million bits of information. A small personal computer, sitting on somebody’s desk today, on the other hand, has the capacity to handle programmes that have 64 million bits of information. Programmes written today denote the year in a date by four digits (1999 and not 99). But the problem is that many systems might still be using programmes written twenty years back, and hence would have information fed into it where the date is denoted by two digits.
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
This is the background on the basis of which the prophets of doom predicted that a host of dire consequences would overtake the world on 1st January 2000. A Y2K computer catastrophe was made to appear inevitable. Cities would have to go without power, phone systems might fail, banking records would disappear.
But when clocks rolled into 2000, and officials from New Zealand to Hawaii checked their monitors, even the most sanguine forecasts seemed too dire, leading many to question why the much-feared Y2K glitch was such a dud — even in places like Russia, China, India and other nations seen as particularly vulnerable to failures. Only a smattering of computer related glitches were reported that could be blamed on Y2K, but they had a touch of the ridiculous rather than the catastrophic. For example, a customer returning a movie to a video rental store in New York state, was presented with a 91,250 dollars late fee after computers showed the tape was 100 years late! Employees at a different video rental store in Florida used pen and paper because computers failed. In the South Korean city of Ansan, a hospital reported that its computer recorded a newborn’s birthday as Jan. 1, 1900.
Now, for once, people are asking across the globe, what went right? Was it the case, that a massive, meticulously mounted operation, across the globe paid spectacular dividends? Up to 600 billion dollars was spent to repair the world’s computers and make sure they weren’t struck down by the millennium bug. Professionals who have been involved in these operations to counter the Y2K problem for the last five years, would have us believe so. Top U.S. Y2K trouble-shooter John Koskinen defended the vast sums spent. He called fixing Y2K the greatest management challenge in 50 years. “I think that we should not underestimate the nature of the problem that was originally there,” he said. “If people had ignored the thing, then you’d have seen more impact,” said Microsoft boss Bill Gates on US television, assuring people that a worldwide bill of $US 600 billion had been well spent.
Was it a 600 billion dollar problem?
Several critics however suggest that the Y2K issue was a conspiracy by computer programmers to cash in on consumer fears. Other critics have said that the problem was caused by software companies’ errors and they should be made to pay the bill, rather than profiting from huge purchases of new Y2K bug-free software. Many now doubt that the Y2K bug was as great a problem as it was made out to be. And they hint that those that made billions from fixing the bug are the primary culprits in fuelling fears about the Y2K bug. The Y2K repair operation, has been termed as the most expensive “patch-up” operation in history. As the dust settles on the celebrations to greet the new millennium, it seems that just about every computer worked which controlled vital infrastructure facilities like power, water, telecommunications and air traffic control. For almost five years, as a run-up to the year 2000, software makers flooded stores with software that promised to catch hidden problems and fix them, and consultants offered expensive new Y2K services to detect, fix and double-check Y2K problems in corporate computers. The total bill – a whopping $600 billion, worldwide. People are now wondering if there really was a $600 billion problem in the first place.
At the heart of the controversy is the fact that many countries seem to have got as spectacular results (in terms of a problem-free transition into the new millennium) as countries in N.America and Europe, even though they spent much less on fixing the Y2K bug. For example, British Telecommunications and South Korea bought similar telephone hardware in the late 1980s. By 1998, BT had already spent around 500 million pounds making sure it was not destroyed by the millennium bug. South Korea up to that point had spent nothing because they didn’t see a problem. They couldn’t both have been right, considering that the end result was equally problem free for both on 1st January 2000. In the case of Paraguay, the government waited until mid-1999 to start tackling the glitch. The country’s Y2K coordinator had predicted widespread power shortages, water shutdowns and phone disruptions. But on 1st January 2000, all basic services, including electricity, telephones and water, were functioning normally.
There were no reports, either, of major disruptions in India, Russia and China — three large countries which were believed to have lagged behind in placing systems to counter the Y2K bug in position. In fact Western embassy officials in India had been instructed by their governments to store food, water and candles in anticipation of a breakdown of all essential services on 1st January 2000! Now the International Y2K Cooperation Centre (a United Nations-funded organization that has been closely monitoring date-related problems) says the reason why nothing serious happened in these countries, is that the systems in those countries were not highly vulnerable to the Y2K bug in the first place. This seems a really late realisation, given that the hype about Y2K related-catastrophes had been prophesied for years.
ON TO FEBRUARY 29TH!
One thing that the Y2K bug computer industry cannot be accused of, is a lack of imagination. If the world breathed a collective sigh of relief to have handled January 1, 2000, we are now told to watch out for February 29, 2000. A succession of other warnings last year (in addition to the “big one” for 1st January, 2000) turned out to be duds. April 9, 1999 — the 99th day of the year — was supposed to upset computer systems. So was September 9, 1999, which could be represented as 9-9-99. In theory this string of nines was a threat to computers because nines were often used by programmers to instruct a computer to shut down, or prepare for maintenance. January 1, 1999 was a danger because many contracts, insurance policies and loans would reach ahead one year and trigger the millennium bug.
February 29, 2000 is being held up as a possible problem because it is a one-day-in-400-years event. Because the phases of the moon don’t exactly mirror the calendar, every four years an extra day in February brings it into step again. But 1800 and 1900 weren’t leap years. The ruling by scientists is that all years divisible by four are leap years, except those divisible by 100. The exception to this is that years divisible by 400 are leap years. Many computer programmes may not have taken into account this eventuality — hence the doomsday predictions for February 29th. But the Y2K industry may well find that they have to deal with a much less gullible world. The Cuban government spokesman probably put it in the right perspective when he said the lack of problems worldwide with the Y2K bug “brings suspicions that the enormous investments in computers obeyed an audacious market manoeuvre.”
THE kind of fears that were generated by the Y2K bug, in the U.S. can be gauged by an opinion poll done in the U.S. before 1st January 2000. Following are the responses received for the question: Which of the following best describes how you are preparing for the Y2K problem?
I’m not doing anything to prepare 30%.
I’m preparing hardly at all, just staying home and monitoring events, preparing a few candles, flashlight, and other things for minor disruptions 26%.
I’m preparing a moderate amount of emergency food and supplies as if for a hurricane 18%.
Im preparing a lot supplies for a week or more, home security precautions,or leaving urban area 9%.