As 2000 gets closer by the day, many computer users are facing the prospect of a back-to-the-future nightmare.
Many computer programs calculate years from the last two digits, such as 95 for 1995. But when 2000 arrives, the year will be represented by 00. And so the huge number of programs that make calculations based on higher year values, such as 95 minus 45 equals 50, will produce wrong answers.
For example, a computer in 2000 might think a person born in 1970 is 70 years old if its program automatically used the bigger number to begin a calculation, such as 70 minus 00 equals 70. If a pension fund company’s computer program did that, a 30-year-old could start getting retirement benefits.
Likewise, a January 2000 monthly mortgage check written on Dec. 31, 1999, might get bounced because a bank computer thinks the check is 99 years old and therefore no good.
Some product executives have been warning about the date trouble for years. But lately, big computer companies have also warned of a possible crisis.
“As gratifying as it is to see some more people doing it, it’s not enough,” says Michael Lips, president of TransCentury Data Systems, a San Francisco company that helps businesses with date design software. “We are still going to have major problems despite the best of efforts.”
The trouble is that just fixing a computer program isn’t enough. All the data that work with the program, which sometimes means millions of records or transactions, must be changed to match the program.
In addition, if a company shares data with someone else, such as an oil driller reporting production to a state agency, the two parties must ensure any changes are compatible with each other’s computers.
“In the grand scheme of things that need work, I think this is on the large side,” says Ron Rudman, an engineer at Electronic Data Services Corp., the nation’s largest computer services company. “The main point is to not become part of the frenzy, stay calm and work on it early.”
The Gartner Group, a technology research firm in Stamford, Conn., estimates large businesses will spend $100 billion in the next five years to correct their programs. Government agencies may need to spend a similar amount, though Gartner hasn’t done a study for them.
“One financial company said it will spend $250 million to solve the problem,” Gartner analyst Kevin Schick says, though he won’t identify it.
The two-digit year became standard with the first computers decades ago as a way to preserve data-storage space and maximize processing power, which initially was a fraction of what’s available in a $10 calculator today.
USAA, one of the largest insurance and financial services companies, says much of its USAA data has already been modified to survive the millenium change unscathed. The company says it is also nearly finished converting life insurance and banking software.
“As you change data, that is the lifeblood of your company, and so making major modifications like that is always scary,” says Jay Holmes, a USAA assistant vice president.
Marc Sokol, vice president of technology at Computer Associates International Inc., one of the largest software companies, says some clients have been updating old programs for five years.
“But there’s certainly a class of people out there, there’s less and less these days, hoping the problem goes away,” he says.
In a survey for the computer services firm Cap Gemini America Inc., just one-third of the 201 large and midsize companies surveyed have assessed the 2000 problem.
Computer engineers have never been forced to make a change of such magnitude with an absolute deadline. By the time people start working on it, there may not be enough experts to help.
“We think it’s going to hit the fan in 1997, at which time we think there will be unlimited demand for limited resources,” says Bill Goodwin, editor of Tick Tick Tick, a New York Citybased newsletter devoted to the issue.