Y2K: Nearing Disaster or Minor Computer Flaw?
By Pete Conti
Imagine that, as you do annually, you are counting the minutes until the New Year arrives. You are watching Dick Clark announce that the countdown will begin soon, and you feel anxious. Finally, as you hear the offbeat 5-4-3-2-1-0, and let out a sigh of relief, something goes wrong. At precisely 12:00 A.M. on January 1 of the year 2000, computers across the nation crash, leaving the country in panic. Stores are looted, riots break out, 911 is dysfunctional, banks lose money, the stock market crashes, planes drop from the sky, and we are all left in the bitter darkness. Horror stories such as these are common among news broadcasts and the Internet, but many are wondering how the “Y2K” problem will, if at all, affect their lives. Some professionals say that the Y2K problem may only cause glitches in older, obsolete computers and mainframes, while others are warning the public, and urging proper preparedness for this imminent disaster. Although both sides of this conflict have very arguable positions, the world is not taking the Y2K problem seriously enough.
Before a valid position can be taken, one must first fully understand what the Y2K problem is, and how it might affect computers. Computer coding has always been constructed of zeros and ones, and the finished product is often called the computer “language.” Over the last thirty years, namely the early eighties, computer coding was much different than it is today. During this time, a string of zeros usually meant the end of a particular program. For these computers, which are very few, when the year 2000 arrives, the Central Processing Unit, or CPU, will determine that the zeros in the year 2000’s date as the end of the software, and the computer will crash. This only makes up a very small percentage of the computers that will be affected by the Y2K problem, the others being the more modern computers that still are not compliant with the year 2000’s date. These computers, unlike the earlier, primitive ones, would not recognize the year 2000 as the date in which the software stops functioning, but instead as the year 1900. This is due to the fact that many date systems are set up using only two numbers, so for example, 01 would be read as 1901, because these computers are still set in the 20th century. Some argue that, because the computer would not crash, and simply believe the date was 1900, the Y2K problem is not a major dilemma; the vast majority of computers would still be fully functional, so fixing the problem doesn’t require so much urgency. The problem could be fixed after the year 2000, so panic is unnecessary. This is obviously not the case, when you think about all of the computers that run on dates. Almost all of the systems that run schedule-keeping programs will be adversely affected if this problem is not fixed. What about the telephone company? What would happen if you were on the telephone at the date change? What about Travel agencies and package delivery systems? These questions remain unanswered, and will stay that way until the year 2000 arrives.
The Y2K problem is very serious, but it is causing many more problems than simply computers. There are radicals supporting every viewpoint. Some people who are worried about the Y2K problem are withdrawing all of their money from banks, and stockpiling their houses with months worth of food, while others simply fail to acknowledge the Y2K problem. Others are actually trying to get rich off perhaps the biggest problem in computers’ short history. There are numerous fake, overpriced, and overrated Y2K “survival kits” on sale for ridiculous prices. Imagine what would happen if Y2K did cause major problems, what would the radicals do then?
While it is obvious that many are over-preparing for this potential upcoming problem, the ones that are paying no attention to it may be in danger. NBC news stated that withdrawing money from banks is actually a bad idea, as many banks have already converted to Y2K compliant software, but having necessary items such as a radio, batteries, a flashlight, and canned food would definitely be a good preparation idea.
Even after clear warnings of the dangers of the Y2K problem, many software companies and computer manufacturers are simply not addressing it. Lou Marcoccio, year 2000 research director of Gartner Group’s Dataquest unit, recently said that 81 percent of all commercially packaged software now sold, for use in everything from hand-held computers to large mainframes, is not Y2K compliant. This means that up to 81 percent of all the computers will crash, or have major glitches. This is completely unacceptable. Even with Y2K approaching quickly, the government is allowing 81 percent of software sold to be unprepared for the Y2K bug. The problem was presented as early as the beginning of the nineties, and nearing the end of the first quarter of 1999, the majority of software will not recognize the beginning of the new century.
Since the invention of computers, there have been problems. This will never be avoided, but the problems can be fixed. The year 2000 bug can be fixed, but it is unlikely that it will be avoided, as ample time is not available. The government is partially to blame here; they initially ignored the problem, and are now trying to frantically fix it. But saying that the government is to take the full blame is ignorant, as the problem was created as a result of many different factors. It is obvious that this problem has been left alone too long, and now, in a world of panic and fear, we are trying to get rid of it, with less than a year to complete the process. This is an unreasonable goal. Never has a problem of this destructive capability been ignored as it has in the case of the Y2K problem, and saying all computers will be sound through the next millenium is not true. We reside in a nation run by computers, and computers are run by a code. This flawed code, which may actually cause the computer to crash, has been overlooked for nearly a decade, and the price we may have to pay will be the wrath of Y2K. This is not saying that civilization may come to an end, or that humans will be forced back into the forest for years to come, but what it does state, is that Y2K is coming, and the world may never be the same.