So, What's the (Y2k) Problem?

Over the past two or three years, we have heard more about the "Millennium Bug," "Y2K," and the "Year 2000 Problem" than we ever wanted to. The striking thing about the subject is the dichotomy between the opinions on the ultimate effect it may have on our lives, from complete anarchy and planes falling from the sky, to a barely noticeable transition to a new century that will be less memorable than the inevitable champagne hangovers. As the date draws near, technical experts generally agree that the changeover to a new century will create problems for businesses because of their reliance upon computers for operations. So, exactly what is this problem and how did we get to this point?

In the 1950's and 1960's, when computer tape machines were being developed, the cost of storing information on those tapes was hundreds of times more expensive than data storage is today. In the early 1960's, the cost of storing one megabyte of information for one month was about $175, while today that cost is about $.10. The original mainframe computers took up entire rooms, but contained less memory storage capability than a personal computer available in the late 1980's. Consequently, space was at a premium. In order to save space and money, date fields were encoded by using only two digits for the year. For instance, May 18, 1999 was input as 051899 to save the two additional spaces that would have been required if the entire year had been recorded. As the original data was carried forward to more sophisticated tape systems and ultimately to disks, the two-digit year fields were also carried forward. When software was developed to access, process and utilize that data, two-digit year codes were used for easy recognition.

Similarly, embedded chips or microprocessors in computers, appliances and manufacturing machinery have memory built in using the two-digit dating system. These are not "reprogrammable" by editing lines of computer code, and chips that are memory dependent and not Y2K compliant need to be changed. However, it is difficult determine what machines are dependent on these date sensitive embedded chips, and that dependence may not be apparent until it is too late. Microprocessors are not only present in consumer goods, but also control manufacturing lines, building systems such as security, HVAC, fire suppression and elevators, and medical devices like pacemakers and IV pumps.

The problem with Y2K is, at the turn of the century the Year 2000 may be interpreted to be 1900 by non-Y2K compliant software systems and embedded chips. Systems and machines that depend upon a date calculation to perform their function will make errors or shut down entirely. Since system operations depend upon the date for calculations to determine sequencing or sorting often by age, the 100 year time loss could cause chaos. For example, a benefits provider begins sending checks out when a beneficiary reaches a certain age, like sixty. This is generally accomplished by subtracting the person's birth date from the current year. A person born on January 1, 1940 would become eligible on January 1, 2000. However, if both dates are in the system as two digit dates, the computer will read the age as -40 (0-40), or 40, and a check will not be sent. On the other hand, someone born on January 1, 1960 may be considered by the computer to be eligible for benefits (0-60, or 60), even though they would not truly be eligible for twenty more years.

In the case of embedded chips, the conventional wisdom is that the machines dependent on the date sensitive chip will simply shut down. For example, many hospitals have transitioned from drip intravenous fluid systems to IV pumps, which contain microprocessors. The drip IV is regulated by gravity, while the IV pump is regulated by an embedded chip. If the chip is not Y2K-compliant, the pump will simply shut down, and it cannot be turned back on until the chip is replaced. It is interesting to note that, even though the hospital community has professed it is ready for the Year 2000, a number of hospitals are not scheduling elective surgeries until the second week of January, 2000.

Additionally, commercial office buildings rely heavily upon microprocessors to operate. Individuals working in non-compliant buildings may face the following scenario: arriving at the office, they find they are locked out because their keycards don't work. Once they gain access, they become stuck in the elevator at the ground floor because the elevator believes it is 100 years overdue for a maintenance check. If the stair doors operate, and the aggravated person makes it to the offices' floor, the employee is again denied access because of a misread keycard. The building is either too hot or too cold because the HVAC system shut down.

As if those scenarios are not enough, there are other dates before and after January 1, 2000 which may cause some failures in computer systems:

  • July 1, 1999: State governments begin fiscal year 2000 in forty-six states, including Massachusetts. All municipal governments in Massachusetts begin fiscal year 2000. Will their systems be able to properly recognize and process the "00" date field?;
  • September 9, 1999: This date, 9/9/99, may turn off some programs because the sequence of "9"'s is a variant of a code that signals the end of a program, resulting in a string of "error" messages;
  • October 1, 1999: The start of fiscal year 2000 for the Federal government;
  • December 31, 1999, 7:00 P.M. E.S.T.: Clocks in computers which are synchronized to Coordinated Universal Time, which is kept by a clock in Europe, strike 12:00 A.M. on January 1, 2000;
  • January 5, 2000: The Tuesday after Saturday, January 1, 2000. For many, the first business day following the New Year's long weekend;
  • February 29, 2000: That's right, February 29, 2000. The year 2000 is not only the beginning of the New Millennium, it is also a leap year - a very unusual leap year. Ordinarily, a day is added every four years for a leap year, except at the turn of a century. A day is added at the turn of the century only when the date is divisible by 400. So only the dates 400, 800, 1200, 1600 and 2000 A.D. qualify. Since century dates are not generally associated with leap years, some programmers may not have correctly identified 2000 as a leap year, and the programs may not recognize February 29th as a valid date.

The true problem with Y2K and the other associated dates is there is no method of determining who has made the effort to make their systems and machinery compliant, and who has not. While the estimated world-wide spending on Y2K date field conversions was approximately $860 billion at the end of 1998, most of that money is being spent by governments and large companies. The concern is that smaller companies, which don't have the resources both in terms of finances and personnel to assess and remediate the situation, have adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude. Because of the interdependence between companies large and small for goods and services, Y2K failures anywhere in the business chain can cause disruptions and losses, even for corporations which have taken steps to ensure their own compliance.

To bring the seriousness of the issue into a better perspective, the following is an abbreviated list of machines or systems that depend upon recognizing the correct date to function properly:

  • Credit card swipe machines in retail stores, supermarkets and gasoline pumps;
  • Bank automatic teller machines;
  • Facsimile machines;
  • Copy machines;
  • Telephone voice-mail systems;
  • Elevators;
  • HVAC systems;
  • Security systems, including key card recognition systems and computerized parking lot gates;
  • Automobiles, with chips in engines and digital dashboards;
  • Traffic lights;
  • Air traffic control systems;
  • Airplane navigation systems;
  • Global positioning satellites and systems;
  • Medical equipment, such as defibrillators, pacemakers and patient monitors;
  • The Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service computer systems; and
  • Coffee machines

In light of the above cursory list, it is safe to say that all of us will be effected in one way or another by Y2K. It appears, however, that at least our most basic need for the delivery of power and water in Massachusetts should be met at the turn of the century. On April 8, 1999, the chair of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy, Janet Gail Basser, testified before the House and Senate Committees on Science and Technology on the utility industry's Y2K readiness. Chair Basser stated that "nearly all" of the utilities had completed at least 75% of their Y2K testing and remediation by the end of March, 1999. Most will be "ready" for the date change by the end of June, 1999.

So, what will happen on January 1, 2000? No one really knows. The hope is the lights will come on, trains and planes will run on time, and the scheduled shipments from your vendors and to your customers will happen. If your life and your business are disrupted, you can take steps now to minimize the risk of damage to you, and to maximize your chances of recovery if you are damaged. In the following sections, you will learn about the current trend in the Y2K judicial arena, the predicted issues on and after January 1, 2000, and the strategies you can use to properly prepare for the New Millennium.

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