If only we had treated Y2K like the GPS date rollover

I must be getting old. Actually, I know I am - thanks to one of Air New Zealand's 'Millennium Moments' I discovered I'm nearly too old to enter the Young Farmer of the Year contest, which was pretty telling, as you can imagine.

I must be getting old. Actually, I know I am — thanks to one of Air New Zealand’s "Millennium Moments" I discovered I’m nearly too old to enter the Young Farmer of the Year contest, which was pretty telling, as you can imagine. But I know I’m getting old because the thing that’s annoying me most about the year 2000 is the continual reference to it, regardless of the relevance. On the TV news tonight they talked about new fashion "for the millennium", a new version of an old song "for the millennium" and all I could think was "it’s not the millennium". Old and a little tired, that’s me. They also talked about the GPS rollover, describing it as a warm-up for Y2K. If it was an indication of what we should expect, then we can all sit back and relax, sipping umbrella-laden drinks and mentally spending our on-call bonuses because next to nothing seems to have happened. In fact, the most traumatic thing that happened, as far as I can see, was that I got the date wrong in a recent story about it. Other than that, everything seems to have been plain sailing. Of course, Y2K isn’t like the GPS rollover. August 22 came and went without a fuss mostly because GPS systems don’t like salt water and so tend to get upgraded with startling regularity. As each upgrade brought boaties, trampers and the like closer to the date itself, the software was upgraded to cope with the seemingly impossible date. Once the day itself arrived users of GPS were well equipped with information about the problem and, for the vast majority, equipment that would cope. While Y2K is a lot more complicated than GPS it seems to me that we can compare and contrast the way the industries handled their respective problems. We’ve known about Y2K for a long time. The first time I remember thinking about a date-related problem was in 1978 when I saw my first cheque being written. Amazingly, my mother seemed completely unperturbed by the fact that the date space printed on all of her cheques had the number 19 printed on them. "What happens in 2000?" I asked, awash with the potential horror of it all. She, of course, assured me she would have a new cheque book by then. That was over 20 years ago, and all that time software developers have been aware of Y2K. It doesn’t matter who is to blame for putting it there — as the IRD has pointed out so astutely, Y2K is a feature not a bug. But how hard could it have been for the people in charge of our IT industry to start including Y2K-related standards slowly and gently over the years before the turn of the century? Why are we as consumers, users, observers and the like being forced into spending so much money, time, effort and energy looking for this damned thing when it was so much more easily avoided in the first place? I wonder how long it will be before large software developers are sued for the cost involved in the clean up? I would say at the first sign of litigation following any failure, fingers will rapidly be pointed toward these companies. We like to compare the PC industry with the car industry — imagine if this were a problem with your car. "I’m sorry, but on July 13 next year your car won’t work as it should. Oh, and you’ll have to pay to have it fixed. Thank you, have a nice day." I’m sorry but I’d be around to the dealer the moment I got the letter and demand they sort it out. Instead, because it’s a "computer problem", it’s left to you lot to clean it up. Even if you don’t find any date-related problems, you still have to check. Even if nothing happens on the day itself, you still need to have staff at work just in case. The cost involved is staggering even if nothing happens, and I can’t see that being the case myself. Paul Brislen is Computerworld’s Y2K  reporter. He can be reached at paul_brislen@idg.co.nz, or phone: 0-9-377 902.

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