Y2K a decade on

Nope, still no planes falling out of the sky

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It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since the dreaded Millennium Bug put fear into the hearts of technology specialists, software developers, business executives and legal departments everywhere.

Fears of massive system failures abounded, including worries about errant missile launches thanks to computers confused about what century we were in. But the calendar flipped from December 31 1999 to January 1 2000 with the world relatively unscathed from the Y2K switchover.

Ironically, the clock ticking to January 19 2038 poses a similar threat to some systems today. Languages such as C, C++ and early Unix languages stored dates in an odd way beginning in 1970, says Drake Coker, chief technologist for application development at Cobol provider Micro Focus. "That overflows 32 bits" on January 19 2038, Coker says. Older software will experience the problem, he says, but "it won't be as big" of a problem as Y2K.

The Y2K countdown: Tech's big drama

If you worked in technology, you might remember that New Year's Day as different from others. Instead of watching college football games or recovering from the previous night's celebrations, you may have had to work or at least be on call to keep watch over potential Y2K-generated mishaps.

These days, however, the biggest reminder of Y2K comes perhaps from TV reruns of the cult classic film, "Office Space," which had depressed computer specialist Peter Gibbons, played by Ron Livingston, explaining the Y2K switch to waitress Joanna, played by Jennifer Aniston. That scene certainly dates the movie.

For anyone who needs an explanation after all these years, the Millennium Bug referred to computer systems that used two digit dates because programmers at the dawn of computing did not think far enough ahead to put in four digits. So when the 1990s made way for the year 2000, the date, "99" would then become "00," with systems believing the world had just reverted to 1900 instead of advancing to the year 2000. "The fundamental issue was the date ranges," says Josh Aaron, president of Business Technology Partners, a technology consulting firm.

A now-retired technologist who worked for British Telecom 10 years ago recalls the extensive efforts to tend to Y2K. "It all got done, and it was a hell of a lot of work involved, and of course once you fix it, you've got to test it," says David Quinn, who ran the systems software group at BT.

Y2K was fixed because people prepared for it, Quinn says. "I wrote some of those systems" for billing and order management, he says. "I know the dates were wrong."

A decade after Y2K, technologists reflected back on that time and the lessons learned, with some disagreement over whether Y2K turned out to be basically a nonevent because millions of dollars were spent in a heroic effort in advance to fix the problem or because the problem was overblown in the first place.

Was the Y2K Millennium Bug fear overblown?

"I think people felt duped because the world was predicting a disaster," Quinn says. There were even predictions that cars would stop running because of engine clock problems, he says.

"My recollection is that probably 70 percent of that concern turned out to be unfounded, but you had to do the research anyway. You couldn't take a chance" in mission critical environments like financial services and health care, Aaron says. He says he could not recall an actual Y2K problem that could not be fixed in five minutes. "My opinion is it was a quiet day because people put the proper focus on it, did the right amount of due diligence, and [did] the work that needed to be done."

Concurring that due diligence took care of the problem, Chip Ahlswede, who worked for the US House of Representatives at the time checking on Y2K compliance, says it was better to be safe than unprepared. "I think it was the preparation thing," says Ahlswede, who worked as a subcommittee clerk. He is now principal at Regal Strategies, a political consulting firm. He remembers Y2K's mild impacts. "As far as the government, there were a few systems that had glitches after the fact, but obviously no missiles were launched," Ahlswede says.

"The high publicity it garnered ensured that everyone took care of it," recalls Micro Focus' Coker. Corporate managers were afraid of getting sued as a result of Y2K problems, he says.

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