Last year at this time, we were all waiting nervously to see if Y2K computer problems were going to cause our bank balances to disappear, our computers to self-destruct, and air planes to fall from the sky. We were afraid we might be without electricity and telephones for an extended period of time. When 2000 arrived with no disasters, we began to think all our fears were for nothing.
But it turns out it was a major crisis after all, one that we managed to fix just in time by throwing $200 million dollars at the problem. “It showed that we can, if we put the resources to it, solve tough global problems of our making,” said Bruce McConnell, who directed the international Y2K effort. “It was a great story of cooperation and hard work. It was expensive but it was successful.”
For those who have forgotten, Y2K stands for “Year 2000,” and was the name given to the problems caused by computer manufacturers decades ago, who acted as if the year 2000 would never come, since they decided to use only two digits to represent the year. This resulted in a short-term savings of computer memory, at a time when memory capacity was much smaller than it is today, but it also meant that computers were programmed to think that the upcoming year 2000 would actually be 1900.
As the new year dawned, Y2K watchers nervously checked to see if experts had managed to reprogram enough computers to avoid a worldwide disaster, and for the most part, their efforts worked. It seemed like “just another day” to those of us living in Europe and the United States, so we wrongly assumed there had never been a real problem in the first place.
“It?s like saying to a surgeon after he conducts a major intrusive operation that because the patient?s fine, it?s not a big deal,” said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. “Problems did occur, and the fact that it was so minimal means that people did a good job.”
There were some failures. The computers that process images from U.S. spy satellites broke down. Japanese nuclear reactors experienced problems, but no radiation leaks. Some people?s credit cards billed them multiple times for the same purchases. Leon Kappelman, a Y2K expert from the University of North Texas, said that an unnamed major telecommunications company almost went down, but was able to keep their problems a secret and fix them before customers found out about it.
Another, smaller Y2K crisis will arrive on December 31 of this year, when computers that only have 365 day calendar years will have to deal with the fact that 2000 is a leap year. These computers will think that the 366th day of the year, December 31, is actually the first day of 2001. This isn?t expected to cause major problems, however.
While some companies have invested in entire new computing systems, most firms have gone for the quick fix. Dale Way, a Y2K consultant with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, says that a common solution has been to trick computers into thinking that the year 2000 is 30 years from now, in order to buy time. “We dodged a bullet,” Way said, “But lasting fixes will not be easy to implement?When you look at this infrastructure, it is highly uncertain and it breaks all the time.”
It sounds like the Y2K crisis hasn?t really gone away, but may return to haunt us again in the future.
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