Y2K: Back to the future, or forward to the past? >By Emily Reid
The end is near-prepare for riots in the streets, widespread power and phone failures, economic chaos and the chance to learn to grow your own food.
The millennium is near-prepare for new wireless opportunities once you and your vendors have debugged your wireless systems and installed compliant equipment.
The “Year 2000 Problem” (Y2K) is haunting every business in the world, from the smallest mom-and-pop restaurant, to the largest multinational investment banking firm. Everyone has the same problem, the same solutions to pick from-and the same deadline. That includes the mobile communications industry. There are 16 months left to fix the largest problem in the history of computer science.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when computer programming was a developing concept, and no one realized how dependent the entire world would become on computers, Y2K was born. Programmers decided that to save memory storage, which then was extremely expensive, they would store dates as two numbers instead of four. Thus “1958” became “58.” Most programmers realized that this system would not work for years after 1999 because every January 1, the computer takes the old year and adds one to it to get the new year. For example, 97+1 = 98. However, 99+1 does not equal 00, and 0021 does not equal 99. That is the problem. Who would have thought that simple, first-grade math could have such serious implications?
At the time programmers originally designed this code, most of them assumed that their programs would become obsolete long before 2000. Unfortunately, that is not the case. This problem has been described as the greatest challenge ever to face information system managers. Fixing the old software would require today’s programmers to go line by line through millions of lines of code to correct the date calculation. The options are: either figure out a way to fix it, or buy all new equipment and software.
The latter is not feasible for most smaller businesses, and fixing it is not all that cheap, either. Experts predict the overall cost of solving Y2K to be between $300 and $600 billion (all of which is known as “ugly money” by agencies with fixed budgets.) This estimate does not include the costs of lawsuits that will undoubtedly arise, which could as much as double the cost.
Y2K could lead to such serious complications as widespread power outages and banking failures. There are serious consequences for the mobile communications industry as well. Wireless phone systems could fail just at the time when they are needed most. Many people will depend on their cellular or PCS phones should landline phones go down Jan. 1, 2000. Although this is an important issue, many experts feel that public safety and its supporting industries are the most important group affected by the Y2K problem. What happens when we call 9-1-1, and no one answers? What if no one can call the police? Crime could run rampant in the streets-there would be no control.
Many police departments across the country are already prepared for the coming of 2000. The Houston police department began its efforts about three years ago. It designated several programmers to dedicate their time completely to solving Y2K. Departments in Boston and Detroit underwent similar programs and now have systems that are ready for the new millenium.
Many groups around the world are just beginning to realize the seriousness of the Y2K problem. It has taken some agencies as long as 10 years to solve their Y2K problems. Those who have not taken this problem seriously are in for a shock. The deadline for finding a solution is absolutely immovable. As “01-01-2000” draws nearer, solutions will become more and more expensive.
Some observers even predict that Y2K will bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Already, people are considering taking all of their money out of the bank and liquidating assets in preparation. These scenarios are highly unlikely, however, because several large companies have already solved their Y2K problems, proving that it is possible. Hundreds of consulting companies are available around the world that specialize in Y2K solutions. It is just a matter of finding the right one to fit each company’s needs.
Another twist in the Y2K problem is that once a solution is found that may work, there is still a huge amount of work yet to be finished. Testing is a large portion of solving Y2K. About half of the resources allocated to solve the problem will be allotted to testing. Hundreds of different components in every public and private sector network are affected by the date change, and every one must be tested thoroughly.
A key problem in solving Y2K is that we will not be 100% sure how effective the solutions are until “01-01-2000” has come and gone, and all of the different systems affected by Y2K have had a chance to work to together. Many networks are codependent. For example, for someone to access his financial institution through Quicken, his computer system must be compliant, as well as the power supplier’s, the bank’s and the phone company’s. If there is one flaw in any of these levels, the transaction will not work. Even if the systems are individually compliant, it is possible that they may not work together as they did before the date change.
Wireless equipment manufacturers are also tracking the problem. Ericsson assures on the Y2K portion of its Web site that its products “will be functional, provided that all product including software not delivered by or licensed from Ericsson must accurately exchange date data information according to the agreed interoperability test specification.” Ericsson is also contributing to initiatives dealing with multivendor network interoperability testing.
What we really need is a big, worldwide dress rehearsal for the millennium change-an undertaking so big it probably could never happen. Such a rehearsal would give us a much better idea of what works and with what. Some experts say that it will take about a week to fix all of the unexpected things that go wrong to make all systems compliant with each other and the new date once “01-01-2000” arrives.
Hewlett-Packard recommends developing a Central Project Office as the best first step to take in solving a company’s Y2K problems. This office ensures that the appropriate activities, resources and project plans are being deployed to minimize the exposure to risks related to Y2K. Steps taken include: assessing the situation (6% of resources), developing a strategy (20%), implementing the changes (20%), testing (40%) and redeploying applications (14%). These are basic guidelines that HP recommends all businesses follow to achieve Y2K compliance.
In a July USA Today article, Wall Street economist Edward Yardeni of Deutsche Bank Securities said that there is a 70% chance that Y2K will cause a recession, possibly as severe as the one in 1973-74 caused by the Arab oil embargo. He believes that it would result from investors pulling out of the stock market as they lose confidence in the ability of various companies to solve Y2K. He believes that a recession may begin as early as next year.
Companies need to understand that Y2K compliance must be a top priority. They must provide the personnel, time and resources to get the problem fixed, and soon. That is the only way that society will be able to continuing functioning the way it has been. The sooner this problem is fixed, the more confident everyone will be, and we will be able to avoid an economic crisis. The time to act is now.