The Millenium Bug


I wrote this for a school project. All information has been cited

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Half a century ago, nobody could have guessed that virtually everything would be so computerized. Back then, computers were large and could hold very little information. Extra disk space was conserved whenever possible. Programmers decided to cut the first two digits of the four digit long year when storing dates in computers. The computer operator could assume the nineteen in the front and just go by the last two year digits. By cutting the two digits in a 100 million records saved about 200 megabytes (http://ww.nyx.net/~smanley/cs3113/millenium.html).

Obvious problems are encountered without the first two digits. Computers will give very strange and impractical outputs to very clear and accurate inputs. Disaster is eminent when something goes wrong in computers all over the world at the same time. The year two thousand problem is not a new dilemma. It has been here ever since programmers left out the first two digits. Because of the attitude of leaving things up to future generations, these programmers continued this trend which could cost many people a lot of money in computer error.

Most people will be planning a big New Yearís party for 2000 but an estimated ninety percent of the worldís computers will think it is the year 1900 (Simons 54). We have just over two years to come up with a solution. The main problem of fixing it is that no one is certain what is going to happen exactly and that fixing the problem requires changing millions of line of computer code which wonít be easy or cheap. Our government agencies are worried that this problem could cause loss of money, time, and productivity especially in big corporations which stand to lose much of its important data if they donít fix their problem.

By definition, the year two thousand problem means the inability of computers to correctly interpret the century from a date which only has two digits (http://www.class- solution.com/whatis.htm). It is very common and accepted to use just the last two digits when telling the year. Using only the last two digits of the date is called the short date format and using four digits is the Julian format which is named after Julius Caesar (Thornton 14). Computers, unlike humans, cannot decide what century it is by the context used when describing the date.

When the year two thousand comes, the computer will store the date as 00. The computer will get confused when it tries to calculate the year. For instance, suppose you borrow money from a bank and plan to pay it back in the year 2001. The companyís system is told to stop billing in the year 01. The computer will determine that the year 01 has already passed and it will not charge you for the loan. Not only can error in money result, but also the computer determines your age by subtracting your birth date from the present date. If the year is 00 and your birthdate is 79 then the computer says you are negative 79 years old by subtracting 79 from 00. Effects from the problem can be felt before the year 2000 if computers use dates that fall after the turn of the century.

Right after midnight on January 1, 2000, there will be massive confusion. Suppose a few minutes after midnight, you call you friend in California and you are in New York. There is a three hour difference in time due to time zones. In New York, the phone companyís computer says the year is 00. In California, the phone companyís computer says the year is 99. The telephone companies will register the call as being 99 years long and the friend in New York will have a big long distance phone bill.

Computers will not crash as a direct result of the date change. It really does not matter to the computer what the date is. The trouble of the problem is the output produced when dates beyond 2000 are inputted. The programming language used for the software that is causing the year two thousand problem is primarily COBOL which stands for COmmon Business-Oriented Language (http://www.class-solutions.com/whatis.htm). The newer programming language, Visual Basic, was designed to be year 2000 compliant which means it can handle processing dates after 2000. However the year two thousand problem can still be a problem with Visual Basic. Even the newest version of Visual Basic, version 5.0, only works up to the year 2030 which just pushes the year two thousand deadline by thirty years. It is ironic that this seemingly simple problem could cause so much trouble.

The main concern with the year two thousand problem is the uncertainty of its global consequences. Anything can happen with computers when they are given input which does not make sense to them. There is a possibility that only error messages will appear in some computers or maybe the computer will not be able to run certain programs and it could lose important information. Another major concern is that many people and companies are unaware or do not understand the problem or its consequences which would mean that every time a business uses a computer to run programs with dates, they could be losing money. The problem could go undetected for weeks but too much damage will have occurred to fix it. Giving computers 00 for the date and then having it calculate dates in the 1900ís can be compared to fitting a square peg in a round hole.

All disaster could have been prevented if at any time programmers decided to stop the careless trend of using the two digit system for the year but the longer time went by, the more computers there were and the harder it is to fix. Now there is no choice of putting off fixing the problem because we have very little time and some think it is too late to be fixed with two years left until the year 2000.

There are many skeptics to the year two thousand problem saying that the entire problem is over exaggerated to scare the public into buying software to fix it. Companies who are selling corrective software or who own stock in the companies are generally the voices behind the hysteria. If you think your computer is susceptible to the year two thousand problem, then you can check it by setting its clock to a few minutes before midnight on December 31, 1999. You should then restart the computer and see what happens. If the date correctly reads as 2000 then your computer is year two thousand compliant. If it says the year is 1900 then your computer is going to have to be corrected. You can go to http://www.nstl.com to get a free copy of the program, YMark 2000, which tests your computerís ability to determine the century. A program that will switch a computerís date to 2000 when it can not on itís own is available at http://www.rightime.com to home users for free (Wiener 78). You should run the test again after you use the computer patch to make sure it worked because there is no guarantee it will work.

We need to have a fix to the year two thousand problem before its specific deadline of December 31, 1999 23:59:59. With only two years to go, the United States Department of Defense plans to spend 1.1 billion dollars to fix the year two thousand problem in government agencies (http://www.nyx.net/~smanley/cs3113/millenium.html). In almost all cases, programmer will have to write the new software with four digits for the dates. Unlike the original computers, the space used for storing these extra digits will not amount to much by todayís computer standards.

All computers made after 1996, have been made year two thousand compliant (Stiefel 6). Bill Gates and his company, Microsoft, are being expected to resolve the problem for us. Microsoft Quicken and Microsoft Excel both require a four digit number to be entered for the date (Wiener 78).

Because of the hysteria surrounding the year two thousand problem, a market is created for making and selling a fix to the problem. A simple search on an internet search engine such as Alta Vista yields over sixty thousand matches. Many people stand to make a lot of money by fixing the year two thousand problem. Matri Digm, a company working to solve the year two thousand problem, has risen as the leader in searching for the best solution. Matri Digmís product scans 1 million lines of code per hour making appropriate date corrections at an average of 99 percent accuracy. Itís closest competitor only performs a scan on a million codes in just one day (Simons 54).

Most Personal Computer owners could manually reset their computer themselves so that the assumed 19 for the century number becomes a 20 and then the computers will take over the date conversion from there (Wiener 78). People who think their computers are going to have problems with the year two thousand transition and donít know much about computers should ask someone who knows more about them to run the test for them.

The year two thousand problem began as what seemed to be a harmless, and careless glitch in computers of leaving off the first two digits of the year. This conservative characteristic of computer programmers led us to the potentially most detrimental problem in computer history. Because computers are so abundant in our lives, especially in controlling our money and records, the year two thousand problem could virtually shutdown the worldís businesses if we do not immediately fix the problem. Since January 1, 2000 falls on a Saturday, businesses can expect their employees on Monday to become very confused.

This problem is going to cost many billions of dollars to fix and only some companies are trying to fix it. There is too many computer lines of code to fix it by human. We have to depend on computers to run the tests and scans correctly debug our computers so they will report accurate dates. For hundreds of years, the year 2000 has apocalyptic anxiety associated with it. Now, in the last thirty years, we believe it could be the problem of the millennium. Donít look for industrialized society to come crashing to a halt, but only for some computers will it be the end.


Works Cited

Class Solutions. http://www.class-solutions.com/whatis.htm

Simons, John. "The Millenium bug looms." U.S. News & World Report. (1997) 54.

Solutions to the year 2000 problem. http://www.nyx.net/~smanley/cs3113/millenium.html

Stiefel, Chana. "Year 2000 deleted." Science World. (1997) 6.

Thornton, Jeannye. "As the century turns." U.S. News & World Report. (1997) 14.

Wiener, Leonard. "Turning to 2000." U.S. News & World Report. (1997) 78.


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