The 2000 Year Glitch

Will your computer be able to usher in the new millennium?

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As the new millennium approaches, apocalyptic pundits have increased their predictions of our society’s impending doom. Although most people tend to cast them aside, the computer world had better take notice. The reason: many older computers and applications won’t be able to correctly calculate dates (such as 1/1/2000) that require a four-digit date field.

The problem started more than 30 years ago during the infancy of computer technology. When designing applications, computer programmers limited the number of available spaces for registering the date in order to conserve, what was then, a very limited (and expensive) supply of internal memory. Thus they incorporated the MM/DD/YY convention for assigning dates–both in computers’ basic input/output system (BIOS) and in the coding or applications–limiting the computer to two digits for each field. That was fine for the current century, but when the year 2000 arrives, things may get crazy.

“The problem is that the computer doesn’t interpret “00” as the year 2000 but rather 1900, and miscalculates all computations accordingly,” explains Gary Fisher, a computer scientist with National Institute of Standards and Technology, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Technology Administration. Numerous inaccuracies will occur when a computation goes beyond the year 2000, which include causing or impeding the occurrence of date-triggered events at improper times and rendering incorrect date computations.

Accounting, benefits, forecasting and other date-sensitive applications will potentially malfunction when noncompliant systems try to perform operations that require computations involving 2000 and beyond. Most analysts agree that companies using legacy systems or custom-built applications are most at risk. According to the Gartner Group, a Stamford, Connecticut-based market research firm, these programs are likely to involve mission critical information and procedures, making it even more difficult to identify the scope of the problem.

PC users can try a simple test that will tell them if their system is year 2000 compliant. Fisher recommends setting your computer’s date clock to 11:59 p.m. 12/31/99 to see if it will display the correct year, 1/1/2000. If not, the problem can be corrected by having the computer’s BIOS modified to reflect the proper date. Most commercial consumer applications written in the last six or seven years are likely to be year 2000 compliant. Large organizations with legacy systems and custom applications will have to bring in a consultant to determine if their systems are 2000 compliant, and if not, how extensive the problem is.

The total global cost to resolve the problem is estimated to be as high as $600 billion. For single business enterprises, the cost is about $1 per line of code that was used to create your applications. It’s necessary to check all source codes because there’s no way of telling which lines contain, or are affected by, an insufficient date field. While the problem is expensive to correct, it will become more costly if it’s not taken care of before 12/31/1999.

“Business owners and decision makers need to realize that this is a business problem with a technical solution, not a technical problem,” says Debra Goodman of

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