Article about the millennium problem. Published in Atari Magasinet #3/4, 1998 (swedish magazine). Translated into english by the author.


The millennium problem - facts or fiction?

I give my views about why all companies' spokesmen, analysts and technicians all the time a re talking about the big and upcoming millennium problem.

A great deal of newspaper and magazine articles tells you about the severe problems, which will occur worldwide when we go into the new millennium, at 00:00 on the 1st of January 2000. Then every gadget with a built-in microprocessor will get strange behavior - that is, practically every household gadget, like TV-sets, Videos, microwave ovens, clocks, washing machines, dishwashers - yes, just about everything. In addition to this all (!) computers will fail to work properly - we won't get our salary, all the money on bank accounts will be lost, airplanes will crash (there are airlines that said no airplanes will be in the air at the critical time). Cars will stop working, the stereo set gets quiet, and yes - even the electric toothbrush and the coffeemaker will run amok! This scenario is true if you rely on the journalists who write the stories, but as usual you have to take their words with a large amount of irony.

The problems around the millennium change is nothing but bullshit, which has very little to do with reality! The papers write their articles to make headlines and sell more papers and in the whole, it's quite a good affair for many people. The journalists have no knowledge whatsoever about the facts and they rely on self-appointed "experts".
Anyway, it gives jobs for many "IT-experts" who in reality often are politically appointed persons with very little knowledge about real life and even less knowledge about the technical questions they're discussing.
The main reason why so few dare to guarantee their products' functionality after the millennium switch are the huge court settlement deals that are negotiated in the USA and the fact that there may be problems in rare cases in some applications... This makes everyone stunned and they don't dare to say anything at all in the end. In general, technicians know that nothing will happen, but because of the companies' official policy, they can't say it. It's a sick world isn't it?

My computers will work properly (I've checked the PC's BIOS to see how long into the future the internal clock can be set - and Atari computers in general are pretty well equipped and will live long after this millennium has ended), as will my refrigerator, my freezer, stove, TV and video - and everything else!

Software
The computer problems at the millennium switch are mainly located in the software. Since many companies and authorities use specially made programs, the risk of them having problems is rather big if the programmers have neglected to take the two first numbers in the year in account. Specially made programs are rather risky to use at all times, since you never know if the man who wrote it is still around of various reasons - and if someone else is to make changes to a program, it may be cheaper to make him do a new program than to let him make changes to the other guy's program. It's hard to get along with other peoples' work and find out how they thought at the time... Most commercial programs that are available to the public now take all four digits in the year into account, so most of the software that's available today won't have any problems. Some poorly written programs may have problems, but then there'll probably come an update rather soon - or you simply start using another program instead.

Today's life span of a PC is extremely short because of the extreme development (it takes about 9 months for the CPU speed to get doubled). New computers get faster and faster and get new functions which the old ones don't have. The program developers tag along with this development, since it gives them a better possibility to make their ideas come true because of the greater processing power. This development also means that old PC's get terribly slow to work with since they can't match the demands of the new releases. If you want to work effectively with a PC, it can't actually be older than about 3 years, which makes many of the "millennium-sensitive" machines go to the junkyard before it's time for the supposed problems. Most home-users use their computers for games (among everything else) and games are extremely demanding, which means they're often replaced because of speed problems before the supposed millennium problems arrive.

At companies
When it comes to companies, the computers are often used for a long time to avoid unnecessary investments - and to be true, it's really ok to use the same old computer year after year as long as the software isn't updated - and if the software works the way you want, where's the point in updating it? Those companies run a big risk of having millennium related problems, since there's a great amount of such old machines that aren't upgradeable at several companies. This can lead to big expenses because they have to buy new computers when the old ones start saving files at the correct year and when the backup stops working due to faulty dates. In a company it's extremely important to keep track of the correct date, since you have to know which offers and documents are most recent, the correct dates must absolutely be used in the book keeping and the backup is often depending on dates. Naturally, the backup can be set to take all changed files, but since Windows itself use a lot of files, it may be rather many "changed" files - not to mention the mess it may lead to when you want to find a file you lost... The best metod in those cases is to solve the main problem by exchanging the hardware that isn't up to date.

All companies should absolutely check up on their computers, but when it comes to private persons, I doubt if the computer actually needs to be "2000-safe". Is it a big deal if the file was created in 1900 or 2000 according to the computer when you use it for typing letters at home? You know there's no possibility for you to have made the file in 1900. What may cause problems at home with an old computer is the faulty correction of days at the 29th of February, where year 2000 doesn't follow the regular pattern, but does it really matter if you need to check the date once a year? If the computer and the programs aren't "2000-safe", there'll probably be some problems if you use e-mail and newsgroups, since many functions on the Internet are date-dependent. In some cases you may get mails returned or simply deleted due to illegal dates. Sometimes it may work, but you can't count on it.

Great source for income
The "2000-threat" is a very nice source of income for many consultants who make adjustments to programs that are written for various companies. The funny part in this is that they often use many, many hours - which are fully debited - when correcting their own mistakes! In my opinion it should be regarded as a fault that should be corrected at no cost or a small cost - or maybe be regarded as updates and debited as such since it originally is the programmers' own clumsiness that caused the problems in the first place. However, since companies and communities don't have the same automatic protection in the law as consumers, they would have to sue the programmers, which would take too long time...

When it comes to Atari-programs, it can be a little hard to fix possible problems, since many of them aren't updated any more. However, since most programs don't use the date at all - why bother? The programs won't stop working at new years' eve - they may show the wrong date and that's all. Some unregistered shareware programs use he dates as a reference - but registering those programs easily solves this.

Fetched from www.emfas.telia.se:
"The biggest problem with the 2000-problems is the great amount of embedded systems, which means time-dependent micro-chips that are placed in another product. It may be anything from drainage pumps to traffic lights and oilrigs. The problem is that nobody has an overview of all embedded systems. There are simply too many embedded systems. According to the IT-commission there are - statistically counted - six microprocessors for each inhabitant in the whole world."

The way things really are
My comment to this: Products that don't use the date actively can never be influenced when the year changes. Neither you nor the product knows which year is set in the circuitry, so in many cases year 2000 has already been passed in those "embedded systems". Since the product itself doesn't use this information, the functionality can never be influenced. Of course, circuitry with date is used in lots of constructions since it would be more expensive to develop a new IC without the date than to use an existing standard component. The difference is that only the part that's actually needed is used by the final product - anything else would have been madness, as it would mean more time and greater cost at the development stage. Even if the hardware would have the possibility to use the date and year, it would also need software to take it into account. The software needed by a product that doesn't use the date actively would never be made with the date in mind, since it would take more time and thereby increasing the price of the product. An increased price would mean that many customers would choose a competitor's product instead because of the lower price. Once you realize this simple economic fact, you also realize that there will be no risk for any millennium-related problems with such products.

A very good solution to the problem is to disregard the hype!
The dishwasher, clock radio, fridge and many other things are influenced by an internal clock, but since the date isn't used by the rest of the product, it's absolutely of no interest what the date is set to - it may in fact have passed 2000 a couple of years ago. I'm absolutely certain that many companies will exhale after new years' eve when they find out everything's working as usual - and tell the papers that their 2000-work has been successful (while they in fact didn't do anything). Many others will have paid huge amounts of money to IT consultants and programmers to get everything ready for the new millennium and they'll never know that they were double-crossed by the hysteria!

Have a nice time - even after 2000! (however, I don't leave any guarantee that this article is readable after 2000)
Claes
claes@holmerup.com
www.holmerup.com