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Look Out! Here Comes Year 2000

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Protecting Yourself and Your Company

Written on January 13, 1998 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine on February/March 1998

Newspapers and magazines abound with doom and gloom regarding the "Millennium Bug" or the "Year 2000 Problem".  Here, in a series of questions, is why you should be concerned.

What's the problem?

In the 1960s, when computers were one million percent (yes, that's 1,000,000%) more expensive than today, technical people were very creative at cutting costs.  One of the ways they saved money was to store dates with fewer characters.   They took a date like 21/02/1957 that is 10 characters long and stored it as 210257 that is only 6 characters.  Those 4 characters saved corporations millions of dollars over 30 years.

Representing years with only 2-digits rapidly became standard practice in the computer industry.  For example, those shortened dates are evident on your driver's license or your credit card.  The practice was used in computer programs and then in computer chips.

What's the big deal?

What happens in the Year 2000 when the year is 00 in all those computers?   No one knows for sure but there are three general possibilities:

  1. Nothing will happen and everything will work fine.

  2. Computers will stop working altogether or "crash".

  3. Computers will continue to work but create errors or nonsense results.   For example, if you are born in 1965, in the year 2000 you should be 35 years old (i.e. 2000-1965).  Instead, the computer could think you are 65 years old (00-65 and then ignore the negative) and consider you ready for a pension.

You can easily find a multitude of examples in other articles or hear "horror" stories from your friends and colleagues.  For example, the computer could compute 100 years worth of interest on your credit card balance because it thinks you purchased items in the year 1900 rather than 2000.  Also, can you get money from an ATM if the bank can't process your transaction?

Will it affect me?

When computer systems and chips became cheaper, they were used everywhere.   You probably own more computers than you think.  Computer chips are in fax machines, telephones, personal computers, burglar alarms, sprinkler control systems, elevators, cars, televisions, and VCRs, just to name a few.  If you own any of these, you may have a Year 2000 problem.

Our society is dependent on computer systems.  Computers are critical for the phone companies, utilities, banks, insurance companies, hospitals, airlines, all levels of government, and more.  Imagine widespread disruptions in all or any of these services and how it will affect you.  If you can't imagine that, then think of the ice storm that recently ravaged Quebec and apply that to the world.

Isn't someone fixing it?

A relative of mine stated, quite emphatically, that "Microsoft is writing a patch that will fix all of the problems."  I had disappointing news for him.  Uncle Bill (Bill Gates that is) can't fix all of the problems and, even if he could, he can't automatically update everything -- that takes action from you.   There is no "magic bullet" to fix it all.

Many companies are spending time and money to address the problem.   They've recognized the risks to their businesses and have taken action.   What's frightening is that about 20% of companies refuse to admit a problem may occur -- many of these companies may not survive.  Don't assume that your suppliers or customers are going to be problem free.

Okay, so what do I do about it?

Ensure that the things you own will continue to operate properly:

  • Make a list of all the things that are computer systems and may have computer chips.  Only look at those items that may have a date, time, clock, or calendar function.

  • Determine how critical the item is to you or your business's well being.   Will you have problems if the computer doesn't work?  How much risk is it?   For example, a VCR used only to play tapes doesn't care what date it is -- a VCR used to record does need a clock or calendar.  Another example, a computer used only to store recipes doesn't need dates and is a low risk but a computer to run your financial systems needs all sorts of dates and is a higher risk.

  • For those things that need to be checked or fixed, contact the supplier of the product.  Ask them if the item is "Year 2000 Compliant".  If not, can it be made compliant?  If so, how do you do it and what will it cost?   If you have technical skills, set the clocks ahead and see if a problem occurs (careful when you do this as some unexpected results may occur -- backup your systems first).

  • Buy upgrades or replacements for those things that need to be corrected.

Contact your suppliers and customers.  Make sure that their Year 2000 problems don't become your problems.  Write them a letter and ensure that they are addressing the issue.  If they don't answer or refuse to admit anything, consider your alternatives.

Buy smart!

Ask about Year 2000 issues in anything you buy.  Look at the guarantees or the warranties.  If you're unsure, make the vendor put it in writing.   Better yet, have them demonstrate that it will work after January 1, 2000.

Spread the word.  Tell your friends.

Can't I wait until later?

Yes, there are still almost two years before January 1, 2000.   Consider the following scenarios:

  • You process and record post-dated cheques.  When will you write one for the year 2000?  That's when your problems will begin.

  • You know your sprinkler control system will fail on January 1, 2000 and begin to start watering your lawn in the middle of winter.  You wait until December 1999 to place an order but the company is out of stock for the next 6 months.  Seems that the 20,000 other people that had the same problem ordered their sprinkler control system upgrades before you.

Protect yourself and your business.  Act sooner rather than later.

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