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World: Computer Time Bomb Still Ticking

  • Stuart Parrott



London, 8 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The "London Times" yesterday published a five-page special supplement warning of the danger of a worldwide computer failure at midnight on December 31, 1999, unless firms and other computer users urgently rewrite their software.

Computer experts have been aware of the problem of what they call the Millennium Time Bomb for years. But users have been slow to wake up to the danger. Tens of millions of computers are ticking their way to the year 2000 and many of their owners have no idea a problem exists.

As the clocks strike midnight on December 31, 1999, there is a real chance that many of the world's computers will assume that the year just starting is 1900. This is because programmers, working years ago when the computer industry was in its infancy, shortened dates to save precious memory.

The programmers adopted a common shorthand of expressing the year as two digits rather than four. So 1973 became 73, 1996 became 96, and so on. But in three years, two months and 24 days from today, computers will likely misconstrue the numbers 00 -- (20)00 -- as 1900.

"This breathtakingly simple mistake -- the result of the high cost of memory space on early computers -- has plunged almost every company in the world into a crisis," said analyst Philip Johnston.

Since computers use dates all the time, the software error could play havoc with information stored on hard or floppy discs. This could cripple businesses. Left untreated, the problem could cause banks to send out inaccurate accounts to clients; insurance firms to miscalculate life assurance payments; and shops to overcharge customers.

Britain's Science Minister Ian Taylor says the original programming error was "very stupid" and has led to a "cumulatively massive" problem. Without software revisions, he said, centenarians could appear on junior school enrollment lists; all military and aviation equipment could be simultaneously scheduled for maintenance; and 100 years of interest charges could be added to credit card balances.

Some airlines are considering grounding their flights on December 31, 1999, because they fear air traffic control systems will go haywire or just shut down if the computer thinks there is an error.

"I don't want to be in traffic, in an elevator in a tall building, or anywhere computer-dependent on January 1, 2000," said a German computer expert.

What's being done about the problem? Some countries, including the United States and Britain, have set up special task forces to press home the need for urgent action to government agencies and businesses. But widespread complacency exists around the world. At a recent business conference on the issue in Munich, not one of 120 European information technology directors had active plans to tackle the problem.

The European Community is being equally passive. According to the Times survey, Martin Bangemann, its telecommunications and information technology commissioner, acknowledged the problem only three months ago.

A Year 2000 survey sent out by the U.S. government in April to 24 major departments and agencies found that most have been too slow in tackling the problem, and remain ignorant of the high costs involved.

Analysts say firms not already devising plans on how to rework their computer systems will soon find they have run out of time. And those that have reprogrammed their systems may still have problems if the firms they deal with electronically have not been so thorough.

Experts say the cost of removing the Millennium Time Bomb from the world's computers could be $200 billion. But the effort is hampered by a shortage of programmers.

Younger software experts are ignorant of the original computer language, known as Cobol (and now regarded as ancient) with which many computers were programmed. So firms are fighting to get hold of the small pool of experienced (and middle-aged) staff who are familiar with Cobol. Contract programmers are already earning $1,500 a week, and the figure is set to double in two years.

Robin Guenier, head of the British task force, said he is confident that software can be adjusted in time.

"Every time I talk to a company that is getting on with it, without exception they tell me the problem is bigger than they thought," he said.
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