Now the problem, of course, that we face is time. We can do a lot of things in the United States Congress, but we cannot legislate that the year 2000 will not come.
–Bob Bennett, chairman, Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem
REDMOND, Wash., March 9, 1999 — As businesses and consumers enter the final months of preparing their computers systems for the
many are still grappling to understand the problem and what they should do to get ready.
While larger businesses are taking steps to prepare their computer systems, more than 90 percent of doctors’ offices and 50 percent of small and medium-sized businesses have yet to address the issue, according to a recent report issued by the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. What’s more, consumers are even less prepared than small and medium-sized businesses, according to experts.
“The large enterprises are well down the path toward dealing with compliance issues, and they’re really in the remediation and final testing stages,”
said Mark Light, Year 2000 product manager at Microsoft.
“The small and medium-sized businesses are just now becoming more aware, and consumers are the last to start taking action. Our goal is to raise awareness in both of these latter categories.”
There are three major aspects to the
problem, the most common of which stems from the fact that most computer hardware and software store dates with two digits (99) rather than four digits (1999). This practice was first established in the 1930s and 1940s when computer operators used punch cards with extremely limited memory, and it continues today, even though memory is less of a concern.
“Consumers may want to know why there is still a problem,”
“I think one piece is that some of these applications were created when memory was rather expensive. Secondly, there’s human nature. Culturally, we still think in a two-digit shortcut way and, as a result, it’s still around.”
Because computers commonly store year dates as two digits rather than four, when the year rolls over to 2000 (00), some computers will interpret the date as 1900 instead of 2000. As a result, they will see dates in the 21 st century as smaller than those of the 20 th century and may not execute calculations properly. For example, a system may calculate the difference between 2000 and 1998 as a change of 98 years instead of two years, because it views 00 and 98 in two-digit date fields. In other cases, computer systems may simply read the two-digit representation as an invalid date, causing the system to malfunction.
“Take a tractor with firmware that won’t let you start the engine if it hasn’t had an oil change within a certain period of time,”
“If the tractor reads 00 as 1900, it will say, ‘I haven’t had an oil change in 100 years, so you’re not starting me.'”
The second technical issue stems from the fact that many computer systems and software applications do not recognize the year 2000 as a special case leap year that happens once every 400 years. As a result, computers may incorrectly process dates following Feb. 29, 2000, or fail to perform certain tasks on that specific day.
Finally, many older computer programs save memory by using date fields to signify other meanings. For example, 9/9/99 may have several special date meanings, depending on the programmer who wrote the code. In some applications the use of the special date meant
“save this data item forever”
“remove this data item automatically after 30 days.”
Because each special date code may have been used differently, Sept. 9, 1999 may have unforeseen effects, depending on how date fields may have been used through the years.
By themselves, the technical aspects of the Year 2000 problem are neither difficult to understand nor to address, Light said. What makes the problem complicated is the pervasiveness of these technical issues throughout computer systems and microchips embedded in devices ranging from security systems to traffic lights to telephones. Moreover, many computers in the business world are connected, which means that when one computer malfunctions, the failure could have a cascading effect on exchanged data.
“A large manufacturing company may have 65,000 different suppliers with hundreds of thousands of supplies coming in,”
“And how do you manage all 65,000 suppliers to make sure they give you a continuous flow of parts, and that they don’t have problems? As you can imagine, that’s the issue that gets so complicated.”
Microsoft is taking a three-pronged approach to help prepare its customers to meet the Y2K challenge. The company has tested its products to determine if they are compliant, and issued fixes in many cases when they were not. It has developed a set of tools to help customers assess their systems. And it is offering a variety of information services to educate customers about the Y2K issue and answer their questions.
Before testing its software, Microsoft developed strict criteria for labeling its products
“compliant,” “compliant with minor issues”
During the past few years, the company has tested nearly 2,000 products in various languages, of which 93 percent are compliant or compliant with minor issues. As in the past, Microsoft has said it will ensure that future versions of the Microsoft operating system and its business and personal productivity products are tested before they are shipped. In addition, the company will work to make many recent versions of popular products compliant, even if they are not the most current versions.
“By and large the ones that are not compliant tend to be some very old products that really aren’t being used by many people, and most of these work fine if you simply use four digits when representing the year,”
Microsoft is offering three major tools to help customers assess their computing environments. The first is the
“Year 2000 Resource Center”
Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/technet/year2k/, which offers
explaining the Y2K status of each Microsoft product.
“The documents are the golden knowledge of everything we know,”
“If we find an issue, we put it on the compliance document. If we have a patch for it, we’ll also put it in the compliance document.”
For those who prefer to have information mailed to them, Microsoft has created a
“Y2K Resource CD”
to which customers can subscribe. The CD, which includes product guides, white papers and other year 2000 information, is mailed to users quarterly. In addition, Microsoft will offer customers a Y2K Product Analyzer in the first part of this year, which will scan a user’s hard drive and provide information about which Microsoft products need to be updated.
There are also several information resources available to customers. Customers may request additional information by using a response form attached to every product compliance document on the Year 2000 Web site. Those without Internet access may call the company’s toll free information line at (888) MSFT-Y2K. Information technology (IT) managers may attend a briefing on how to implement Y2K programs, and business customers may participate in a one-day Y2K Blueprint Workshop aimed at helping them develop concrete preparation plans.
Microsoft is also working with more than 775,000 partners worldwide, who sell, develop and deploy Microsoft-based solutions, to ensure they have the tools and expertise to help businesses prepare for Y2K. It is also training computer consultants to understand Y2K issues, so they in turn can help prepare Microsoft customers.
The goal of all these programs is to encourage customers to assess their needs and understand how to address the Y2K compliance of their computing environment , including Microsoft’s products.
“Microsoft is committed to helping all of its customers prepare for the Y2K challenge, and the tools and information resources represent a large step in that direction,”
Businesses and consumers, especially those with large computing environments, should begin working on the issue as soon as possible, and not put it off until just before the new year, Light said. The actions that all customers should take are fundamentally the same, he said. They need to define the importance of Y2K compliance to their IT infrastructure, prioritize which systems and solutions need to be addressed first, and then evaluate the potential impact of the Y2K issue on every aspect of their computing systems, including their hardware, operating system and software applications.
They also need to examine whether they created any documents or spreadsheets using two-digit rather than four-digit years. Finally, they need to check custom software applications they downloaded from the Web or received from programmers rather than a software company.
Once they’ve assessed their computing environment, customers should determine the issues they need to address and start fixing the most pressing issues first. Remediation can take many forms, from fixing the actual computer code, to replacing the solution, to simply retiring the system. Customers should also make sure that all new software they install or download from the Internet is Y2K compliant.
“The most important thing is that people need to take action now,”
“People use computers differently, and they don’t know what Y2K challenges they’re going to encounter, so they need to take action and examine their entire computing environment.”