As the year 2000 approaches, the issue of raising public awareness about what could potentially happen to computer files on New Year’s day 2000 is already becoming a double-edged sword.
The mainstream media’s grasp of what the year 2000 date field problem is exactly, and the language it uses to get the idea across to the public is quite dubious, with only three and a bit years to go.
Recently I heard the problem referred to on national radio news as “the year 2000 bug”, and even more misleadingly, in other reports I’ve seen it described as “the millennium virus”.
Okay, so news organisations have to sell the story to the viewer/reader/listener so they choose words they know the general public can readily identify with, such as “bug” or “computer virus”. However, the year 2000 problem is neither of these--it’s an oversight.
It’s an architectural accident, a shortcut which is about to backfire unless the date fields of many computers and programs are lengthened from six digits (DD/MM/YY) to eight digits (DD/MM/YYYY) to avoid having the year 00 in the date field--because most computers think it means 1900 or will try to fix it by reverting to 1980 or 1990.
The trouble with this problem is that it’s boring. Tedious, in fact. So tedious many programmers want to have little to do with the large jobs awaiting them when companies which haven’t already got started on the problem finally decide they should get their systems sorted out--probably some time at the end of 1998.
Trying to hype the problem or scare people into thinking it is a virus--and therefore almost impossible to fix--is not going to help anyone.
Rob Rosenberger runs a Web site dealing with computer virus myths (http://www.kumite.com/myths/). He is predicting the next biggest myth will be that of “the millennium virus”.
He predicts the millennium virus will dwarf the hoax Good Times virus. This was a false warning spread around the world on the Internet, which urged email users to beware of email messages carrying the words “Good Times” in the subject line--because to download it would mean instant death for their hard drives. The only virus-like behaviour caused by Good Times was the warning itself--it encouraged widespread and unwarranted concern over nothing. Rosenberger claims he is still getting calls from Air Force bases which ask him if he has any kind of antivirus software to combat the imaginary menace. But we ain’t seen nothing yet, according to Rosenberger:
“Wait until January 1, 2000. That’s when you’ll hear about the dreaded ‘millennium’ virus. People will blame this mythical beast for all sorts of software problems. In reality many applications will simply fail to work when the computer’s internal clock reaches the year 2000. But sadly, many people will react by claiming they contracted a lethal virus which triggered on the millennium.”
(Keenan is a Computerworld reporter. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)