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Making a date with disaster; Should we be heading for the lifeboats? Ross Reyburn looks at the Millennium Bug problem.

Aircraft dropping out of the sky, troops out on Britain's streets, water supplies halted, hospital medical equipment malfunctioning, traffic lights failing and the collapse of business markets.

These doom-ridden predictions, all voiced as concern about the Millennium Bug in the world's computer systems, is being translated into millennium panic.

Information leaked from government circles includes the view of Prime Minister Tony Blair, apparently voiced back in March, that the Millennium Bug should be treated as a national emergency.

We also find that Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar, in a confidential cabinet memo to Defence Secretary George Robertson, was on the same wavelength a few months ago when he pointed out proposed cuts in Scotland's Territorial Army numbers could severely h amper the country's ability to cope with a serious civil emergency.

Is the fact that these views have found their way into print a Machiavellian attempt by ministers to wake up the British business world? Certainly the emergence of such confidential information in the public arena at a time when companies are largely ign oring the Government's Action 2000 initiative to combat the Millennium Bug is an interesting coincidence.

"I do not subscribe to what the government is saying that there is going to be murder and mayhem on the streets," said Dr Garry Homer, who is handling the Action 2000 courses for medium and smalized companies being run at the University of Wolverhampton.

"There is a lot of selnterest in making the problem worse than it is because there is income in it for us.

But the problem is serious in that it cannot be ignored. Small companies, large companies, hospitals and government departments have systems that will not handle the slipover to the year 2,000 without coming up with some sort of error or some sort of pro blem."

It is a problem Midland firms generally seem unconcerned about. The university's ITNTO Accredited Millennium Bug Training Course lasts for three days and there is no charge to smaller companies. But it has had an awful response.

"Abysmal," is the way Dr Homer, who is joint leader of the course, sums up the response.

"We were anticipating dealing with hundreds. We are here and waiting but we have had no more than haozen companies coming forward in two months,

"I think it is frightening but understandable. Small companies may have rush orders, they have been hampered by the exchange rate. they have today's problems to deal with to stay in business. Tomorrow's problems they keep sweeping under the carpet."

The bug is caused by the fact that computer programmes have been designed with a two instead of four- digit system to provide more memory space. So the year 1998 will be '98' in computer terms. But the year 2,000 becomes the year '00' and this is potenti al route to chaos if you take company accounts for example.

Dr Homer thinks "bug" is the wrong way to describe the problem. "It was not an error," he pointed out. "It was like somebody thought it was a good idea to build high-rise flats in the '60s.

"We decided to have a two digit date system. Nobody expected the system to still be in use at the end of the millennium."

Taking into account people's time spent dealing with the problem, Dr Homer estimates the bill for small companies will run into thousands ensuring they face no problems when the year 2,000 arrives. Just finding out if there is a problem can be a complica ted exercise.

"It may be a phone call if you are large company," he said. "But if you are a small manufacturing company in Bilston with software designed eight years ago by a company that no longer exists, it would take a couple of day's investigation."

"The fact that your computer clock on the computer at your desk may or may not roll over correctly in the millennium frankly is a triviality," said Dr Homer. "Most computers over four years old have no written-down value.

"The problem is with software and the data files. You may have a customer data base where all of the date information is held on in two digits. Not only has the software that processes that database got to be changed but all the dates themselves have to be changed.

"You are not only dependant on what is in your office. The systems of your suppliers and customers may not be right. The classic case often quoted is the consignment of corned beef being delivered to a supermarket which has a sell by date of 2,000. Becau se the computer system has only two digits, it thinks it is 1900 and the corn beef is 100 years old.

"That scenario could be transposed to the Black Country. You could end up with a raw material being rejected for example because the quality certification was out of date.

"The examples are endless. I personally don't believe we are going to have panic in the streets. But it is a real problem that cannot be ignored.

"There is a modicum of truth in what the government is saying."

Prof Steve Molyneux, IBM Professor of Interactive Communication Technologies at the University of Wolverhampton, also dismisses the extreme scenarios.

"You talk to some people and aircraft are going to fall out of the sky and their microwave isn't going to work, which is absolutely ridiculous," he said.

"The Millennium Bug only affects computer systems which are reliant on the date. Now I don't tell my microwave that it has to cook a chicken at midnight on the December 31,1999.

"Most machines built in the past two years will be Year 2000 compliant anyway. When you have prophets of doom running around, people then capitalise on it. I am sure there are a lot of bandit organisations out there saying we will come and do Year 2000 c ompliance checks and it will only cost you pounds 250-pounds 300. It might be that the company does not need to pay that money.

" You can get free pieces of software off the Internet to test out whether your computer is Year 2000 compliant. The big organisations have a lot of money in terms of fixing systems. It is the smaller organisations that will suffer. If a small firm start s passing on an erroneous date, it just accumulates further up the line."

While Prof Molyneux puts the blame for the problem on programmers.

"Computer programmers are very lazy," he said. "In the past, rather than storing the date as as four digits, they stored it as two digits."

He doesn't feel any major disasters are on their way but he doesn't find it difficult to find examples of awkward problems that could surface such as expensive cars failing to start.

"Quality cars and even modest saloon cars have computerised engine management systems," he said. "If a car has a computerised service history date stamped with two digits, you may find your car should have been taken for a service 100 years ago. That is the sort of silly scenario that could happen."

Although we have to wait for planes to fall out of the sky, there have been examples of computers failing to cope with the date-change problem already.

Apparently in Holland, motorists with bank cards with '00' expiry dates have found their cards being rejected at petrol stations.

From Sweden comes the incredible tale of a lady born in 1890 receiving a letter informing her of the various schools on offer when she reaches the age of 10.

In the United States, a computer clock set to year 2000 on two digits shut down the security system at Chrysler Motors refusing to allow staff out of the building.

William McDonough, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, has staked a claim for an advisory place on Tony Blair's cabinet by predicting the Millennium Bug problem could be "potentially a survival issue for firms or even markets".

The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce & Industry is not pressing the panic button yet but it is concerned about the company complacency factor.

"I can't see a great many companies going out of business because these companies will still be needed," is the pragmatic view of Miss Claire Barry, the chamber's policy executive.

"But it could cost them money. They don't realise the knock-on effects it could have. If their suppliers have a problem, it could be their problem."
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Author:Reyburn, Ross
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 16, 1998
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