Is the Y2K problem a result of so much media hype? Or do we face a real danger of computers starting to shut down at the dawn of the new millennium?
We're certainly not in a position to know. We know how to turn our computer on and off, and to make it do an increasingly wide variety of things. But understand how one is programmed? Not a clue.
We do know it's called the "millennium bug." That name pretty accurately describes what it is-a preprogrammed computer flaw that could cause massive computer failures as the new millennium begins. In essence, early computer programmers took a shortcut. Instead of using all four digits to represent a year, they chose only the last two. They did it primarily because it was far less expensive to do it that way 30 years ago. But their actions are now coming back to haunt us, because at the end of next year the first two digits of a year's date will change. And the experts say computers may well interpret "00" as 1900, not 2000.
Why the last minute rush to make sure there's not a massive system failure at midnight on January 1, 2000? Have we had our heads in the sand? What about those computer geniuses who used the programming shortcut in the first place-why didn't they warn us of what would happen at the end of a century? We wish the answer were a simple one. Apparently, the blame can be spread among all of us. We all share in the foot-dragging that now has most of the world racing against time. The warning was sounded as early as the beginning of this decade, but most thought it was a case of "the sky falling" and delayed planning.
The consequences of that foot-dragging could be significant. Some economists and computer experts are predicting dire global consequences when the millennium expires. They fear there are too many companies and too many governments who have waited too long to begin the long, arduous process of correcting their computer software. Others, like Federal Aviation Administration chief Jane Garvey, believe they're alarmists. She said she plans to board a plane to fly through all the U.S. time zones on New Year's Eve, 1999, to demonstrate that the U.S. government has done its homework.
We do know that businesses in our area have thought ahead, made the necessary preparations, and will watch the closing minutes of 1999 secure in the knowledge that their systems are under control.
Commerce Bank said it's conducting tests by simulating the year 2000 so that "systems will operate before, during, and after the year 2000 date change." OSF Healthcare System has made year 2000 compliance a "high priority and has committed substantial resources to ensure the uninterrupted delivery of the best possible health care services …." Proctor Hospital reports that it will have testing competed by the end of June next year, and will be comfortable that they've achieved the necessary solutions on January 2, 2000.
According to spokesman Neal Johnson, CILCO began its Y2K debugging about three years ago, and has elected to replace many of its older computer systems. The utility plans to have all the old computer systems fixed and ready for testing by the first quarter of 1999.
Caterpillar has established a series of steps-project scope and prioritization, analysis, modification, validation, and implementation-and said its goal is "to have all units completing all phases through validation" by the end of this year. Implementation would occur during 1999.
We still haven't answered the opening questions, though the answer is becoming increasingly obvious. Computer experts locally, and at companies all over the world, believe they have a problem. Some have gone so far as to appoint year 2000 managers–some with a full-time staff–whose jobs are to find the necessary remedies. All told, it will cost companies and governments billons of dollars (some estimate it will approximate $1 trillion to rewrite programs for computers.)
As if that weren't enough, lawsuits galore hover over the horizon if there are computer failures. A Washington law firm, in a report on Y2K to the Manufacturers Alliance, said corporations should communicate "a consistent and frank message regarding the status" of year 2000 compliance plans, and warned that "careless statements … could lead to later liabilities."
This is one of those situations where we hope the folks on the two extremes are wrong. We hope there will be few, if any, computer failures. But we also hope we haven't spent billions of dollars chasing a nightmare that doesn't exist.
We're heartened by what we hear from companies in the Peoria area. We have to-and want to-believe they're not atypical. IBI