The Y2K Bug Is Upon Us
BY ERIK CAGLE
(Editor's Note: This is the first in a year-long series of articles examining the Year 2000 problem as it applies to the commercial printing industry. The first installment is an introduction to the Y2K bug and its potential impact on the business community at large.)
It is February 1999. Do you know where your company's Year 2000 (Y2K) initiative stands?
Like a Nostradamus prediction, the business world has been hearing bits and pieces of a terrible day of reckoning. But the Y2K bug, the nasty little pest that is as obvious as the clock in the upper right hand corner of your computer or as subtle as a chip embedded deep within your most critical mechanism, doesn't come with the baggage of earthquake, fire, flood or any other natural or unnatural disaster stigma. It is not deadly in and of itself, incapable of producing anarchy and lawlessness. It is not a hydra of biblical proportions.
Ah, but the bad bug has a lot going in its favor. Its prophetic pronouncement strolls hand in hand with the coming of the new millennium unless, of course, you count the next millennium as starting with the year 2001. But that would ruin great theater. Prognosticators, from the staunchest religious sector to the immovable agnostic set, foresee great peril awaiting us all when the final seconds tick away on December 31, 1999. Some have gone as far as to construct bunkers in remote locales, fortified with ammunition and sustenance in preparation for this very day.
Is it the apocalypse? Consult your chosen deity for confirmation. But the Y2K bug, pardon the pun, could raise a lot of hell for those whose lives revolve around the digital age, including printers and trade shops.
The question on most minds is: Just what will happen at the stroke of midnight?
"The only thing we know for sure is that something will happen," says William M. Ulrich, president of Tactical Strategy Group and a strategic Y2K advisor to major corporations and government agencies. "There's been a lot of misinformation, and that misinformation continues to be thrust upon us. We hear, 'Don't worry, everything's fine,' and months later we find out that is not the case."
A formal introduction to the popular insect is in order. Many computer programs feature a date function using six digits for month, day and year (as in 02/20/99) rather than eight digit dates (02/20/1999). With the former, the year mode may read the subsequent year as 1900 instead of 2000. For example, in tracking a credit card debt, an account opened on 12/20/99 that is carried into 01/01/00 may cause the program application to calculate interest over a 99-year span instead of a 30-day period. COBOL, still a widely used programming language, can generate preprinted forms from programs written with four-digit dates. The year 1900 is subtracted from the date to produce the stock form, which begins with 19.
On the Case
Ulrich has been in the thick of the Y2K problem since the computer industry began working on it in the early 1990s. Prior to last November, he notes, there had been no safety-related concerns reported by the power industry in regards to nuclear reactors in the United States. At that time, however, an audit uncovered 12 Y2K bugs in safety-related equipment and software in a Seabrook, NH, nuclear plant, in addition to several dozen other problems in critical support systems.
"Lo and behold, information provided stating that safety-related systems were immune to the Year 2000 problem were untrue. Indeed, there are safety-related problems in nuclear reactors," Ulrich says. "If they don't get fixed, that plant is going to get shut down sometime later [this year]."
Conversely, the bug has picked up some undeserved hype along the way, courtesy of media such as the Internet. Ulrich has noted a prevalent line of thinking, a domino-effect series of predictions that will supposedly stem from the Y2K bug. Among the predictions: The entire U.S. (perhaps worldwide) banking system will collapse; the U.S. government will declare martial law; money will no longer have any value; there will be large-scale, massive food shortages and an extended period of widespread power outages.
Ulrich terms these forecasts as pure conjecture. In order for these events to transpire, he says, an unnatural degree of panic would need to set in and cause people to react irrationally.
A somewhat more realistic concern would be a rush on banks by masses of people who fear their assets may not be accounted for on the next business day.
"There is a remote possibility of that happening," Ulrich remarks. "We have six to nine months to deal with that issue from a public relations standpoint. There may be no Y2K problems with banks. Personally, though, I think there will be.
"The concept of pulling your money out of the bank is a very dangerous one," he adds. "Keeping some extra money on hand that you've drawn out over a long time is not a bad idea. Everybody should have some money on hand, regardless, whether it's Y2K, earthquake, hurricane—that's just common sense. But to pull a bunch of money out of the bank is just problematic."
Just how well informed is the public of the possible ramifications stemming from the Y2K bug? Education will be a key in the coming months. Bob Thomas, for one, is doing his part to ensure that accurate, vital information is getting disseminated.
Thomas is publisher of the Year/2000 Journal, a bimonthly magazine launched in January 1997. Primarily targeted toward computer professionals, but also boasting subscribers in management and legal circles, Year/2000 Journal covers the full range of millennium bug topics from technical and managerial aspects to legal applications.
"[The public] is hearing more and more about the problem now from the mainstream press," Thomas says. "Several months ago, virtually no one outside of the computer industry—and a few wily lawyers—knew of the Y2K problem. With movies and novels scheduled to come out in mid-1999, the public will certainly be more aware as we approach January 1, 2000.
"Most people think the Y2K problem is strictly a computer problem," he adds. "However, because our lives are so intertwined with computers, the problem will be evident in practically everything they do."
Both Thomas and Ulrich agree that significant progress is being made in eliminating problems in mission-critical areas. Testing and contingency planning will dominate the latter half of this year. Thomas warns that testing and verification is essential and must be allotted ample time in the event tests indicate remediation work was not complete or was not accurately done.
Large corporations have already instigated preventive measures, according to Ulrich. Fortune 500 companies, with few exceptions, have devoted considerable energies and resources toward exterminating bugs. Ulrich believes areas such as contingency planning and crises management have not been adequately addressed.
Industries in the private sector, namely healthcare, are behind in preparation efforts. But Ulrich is most concerned with small companies, many of which have done little or nothing to stave off potential problems. Herein lies the true caveat.
"Small-, medium- and large-size companies are all at risk, because there's a potential effect on the economy," Ulrich says. "Most people who have followed [the Y2K initiative] agree there is going to be some kind of impact on the GNP, due to slowdowns in production, distribution, transportation and import/export transactions."
Importing/exporting procedures can involve as many as 15 different organizations, and any chink in that armor, like a breakdown at any point on an assembly line, could produce dire consequences. Imagine the inability to obtain a photograph for a passport, preventing travel.
According to Thomas, lawsuits surrounding the consequences of Y2K bug damage will be rampant, despite the lack of agreement on the beast's potential to inflict chaos and perhaps despite the presence of Y2K solutions previously initiated.
"We are a litigious society, always looking for someone to blame when things go wrong," he says. "The primary basis of most suits will be negligence, and it may be difficult to prove in most cases."
How can judgments be made when there seems to be little uniform agreement about the potential results of the Y2K bug?
"The results will be known before most suits are pressed forward," Thomas remarks. "Companies that will be forced out of business will be frantically looking for legal help to stay in business."
Thomas adds that many organizations make their decision on which Y2K tools to implement based on the size of the vendor and its capacity to be sued.
There's Still Time
It's never too late to implement a Y2K solution.
Ulrich used an earthquake in Japan as an example, causing a tsunami. With a two-day window, someone living on the shoreline would have ample time to pack up belongings and board up windows on his house before heading for the hills. Someone who waits until the day of the tsunami to leave may have time to pack some belongings, but he or she wouldn't be able to board up the house. If that person waited until the tsunami was on the horizon to make tracks, there would only be time to get in the car and go. But if the person stays on the beach until the little wave is reaching the shore, there will be just a few minutes to react.
Sadly, there won't be many businesses that are prepared far ahead of schedule.
"Where a lot of business are going to be [in terms of preparation] is when the tsunami is on the horizon," Ulrich says. "The way you react now as opposed to in the spring, summer or fall is different at every point in time. But to just sit there as the wave comes over your head is foolish."