The year 2000 problem - it may be worse than you think

The results of the so-called 'millennium bug' could be more drastic than previously expected, according to one UK expert - who says it could affect not only older mainframe systems but devices with embaddeded logic chips, from security and telephone systems to processing and power generation plants.

The results of the so-called "millennium bug" could be more drastic than previously expected, according to one UK expert.

The millennium bug, or Year 2000 problem, stems from the fact that computer systems may not be able to distinguish between the dates 1900 and 2000 due to software which reads dates as two digits. While it is widely accepted that such a problem could plague mainframe systems that have been in existence for the last 20 years or more, experts are now warning that the problems could prove to be more widespread than thought.

What most people don't realise is that it's also possible that PCs, client/server systems and even devices with embedded microprocessors - including traffic lights and systems which control power plants and offshore oil rigs - could also be affected, according to Robin Guenier, executive director of the UK government-sponsored Task Force 2000, a group aimed at promoting awareness of the millennium bug among businesses.

"The [Year 2000] problem is present in countless logic chips embedded in a multitude of devices from security and telephone systems to processing and power generation plants," Guenier says in a letter to the Financial Times this week.

According to Task Force 2000 research, only one in 10 UK companies has completed an internal audit of its systems to determine which steps need to be taken in order to correct the millennium bug. Guenier says it is already too late for most UK companies to fix the problem before 2000.

"Business today is dependent on its computing infrastructure. Systems that are not fixed will fall. Many businesses could not survive such failure," Guenier says.

However, the Task Force 2000, as well as the UK Department of Trade and Industry, one of the group's sponsors, did not support a bill that was shot down in the House of Commons last week which would have made it illegal for companies not to fix the problem.

The Task Force 2000 instead supports an awareness campaign aimed at getting senior managers to allocate time and resources to fixing the bug.

Unfortunately, such a plan may not be working entirely. While awareness of the problem among senior-level UK managers has risen from 15% last March to 28% today, companies are still not doing enough to solve the problem in time, according to Task Force 2000.

"Senior people (managers) must take this [problem] more seriously," Guenier said in the letter.

Other experts involved with the Year 2000 problem disagree with Guenier and think that companies may be overestimating the effect of the millennium bug.

Not fixing systems to be 2000-compliant will "not be as catastrophic as companies are being told," says Dr. Massimo Spalla, director of European Year 2000 projects for Andersen Consulting.

"Companies which don't fix the problem won't necessarily fail by the turn of the century, but will be less efficient and therefore less profitable," Spalla says.

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