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Week of 27 February 1998

Vol. I, No. 22

Feature Article

Millennium approaches

When computers roll over, will they play dead?

by Eric McHenry

The Times Square ball might not be the only thing that drops at midnight on December 31, 1999. Capers Jones, chairman of Software Productivity Research, Inc., says there's a good chance that elevators, of all things, will acknowledge the new millennium by easing to the bottoms of their shafts and shutting down.

Some elevators are computer-governed, he explains, and will stop running if there is more than a designated number of days between the calendar date and their most recent inspection. The arrival of the year 2000 can cue this safety mechanism because so many computers are coded to read two-digit rather than four-digit dates. They won't be able to distinguish 2000 from 1900.

"I suspect that double-zero isn't considered valid by some of the date routines anyway," Jones says. "The elevators will just descend quietly to the bottom floor, and they won't go up anymore."

This glitch may seem inconsequential, but it belongs to a large family of potential pains associated with the Year 2000 computer dating problem, a phenomenon that has been given considerable media attention and its own streamlined abbreviation (Y2K). On Tuesday, March 3, the Center for Millennial Studies will host the first in a series of panel discussions on the issue -- The Y2K Computer Problem: Time Bomb or Dud. Jones will join experts David Iacino, Nicholas Zvegintzov, and Thomas Oleson in a conversation moderated by Christopher Lydon, host of The Connection on WBUR, and Simson Garfinkel, computer columnist for the Boston Globe.

"Up until now, most discussions have dealt primarily with internal corporate and governmental concerns," says Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies and CAS associate professor of history. "This is the first one to address the public's concerns. How is this going to affect us? What do we need to know about it? What are the experts saying?"

Jones, for one, is saying that Y2K could severely rattle and even disable a society that has become computer-dependent.

"From discussing this with several hundred corporate risk managers and several hundred Year 2000 managers," he says, "I think the problems are going to be widespread and fairly visible. I'm particularly concerned about loss of basic services, such as electric power, telephone service, and possible disruption of water supplies in urban areas, because all of those are heavily date-dependent, and the public utilities do not have a high probability of being able to get them fixed in time.

"There are a lot of problems that you wouldn't even think have anything to do with dates," he says, "but they do. Two-thirds of the world's insulin supply for diabetics is made in one factory that at the moment is not Year 2000 compliant."

Not all the panelists believe Y2K will usher in such a grave new world. Oleson, for example, who is a research director for International Data Corporation, says that service providers and corporate boards are survival-minded and prescient and are taking the steps necessary to preempt problems.

"There has been for quite some time," he says, "a cry that top management has its head in the sand. I think believing that requires a suspension of disbelief. I have been staff to top management at a major insurance company -- I was on the chairman's staff, the corporate secretary's staff, and I've worked in corporate analysis and planning. These men and women are no dummies. They know what's going on in their organizations, and they know how to prioritize."

"Software can be written to recognize the dating problem perfectly well," adds Zvegintzov, president of Software Management Network. "I believe that software, in general, will not fail, either because it was never wrong in the first place or because it has been fixed as part of this great effort that's currently under way."

Because of their conservative outlook, Zvegintzov and Oleson are the panel's "owls." Jones and Iacino, a senior manager in the Technology and Systems Services Group at BankBoston, represent the "roosters." They were divided thus by Landes, who when discussing Y2K is partial to dichotomous metaphors involving animals (CEOs are either "tortoises" or "hares," depending upon the prudence of their approach to the problem). One of Y2K's most interesting aspects, Zvegintzov observes, is the sharp dissent among experts as to the severity of the situation. For many reasons, he says, people find the dire predictions easy to swallow.

"For one thing, it's a real problem," says Zvegintzov. "Any respectable, responsible software expert, if asked 'Could this happen?' would say 'Yes, it could.' It's not a complete poltergeist. Second, it's a software error that everybody understands. It can get play in everything from supermarket tabloids to Newsweek to the New Yorker. Third, it occurs at a memorable time, the most memorable time, a time that is keyed in to people's superstitions. And fourth, people are afraid of software. They don't understand it, but they know that everything is dependent on it. It's really a frightening situation.

"And it's a fun story if you're a writer. It's a fun speech if you're a speechifier. It's good business if you're selling software services," he says. "The other side is not so much fun. I've never made a dollar from being skeptical about it."

Jones doesn't think of himself as a doomsayer, nor does he assume the inevitability of any Y2K consequences. In a position paper he's written on the topic, he refers exclusively to "problems that might occur if Year 2000 repairs are not diligent and effective." But he is extremely wary of owlish complacency on the issue.

"My special niche is quantifying the applications that won't be fixed in time," Jones says, "and that figure, by my take, is 15 percent for the United States. That's the best case scenario, and the United States is ahead of almost everybody else.

"Strangely enough," he adds, "two-digit dates are still being written into programs as we speak. A number of applications that have gone online within the last couple of years have date problems. It's become a standard practice to use two-digits, and so people do it spontaneously, without paying any attention to it."

The Y2K Computer Problem: Time Bomb or Dud? will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 3, in Room 101 of Sargent College, 635 Commonwealth Ave. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. For more information, call the Center for Millennial Studies at 617-975-0299.