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Chip industry group details position on Y2K

As the Y2K spotlight turns to chips embedded in consumer electronics systems, a lobbyist group for the semiconductor industry releases a position paper to weed fact from fiction.

As the Year 2000 spotlight turns to chips embedded in consumer electronics systems, a lobbyist group for the semiconductor industry has released a position paper to weed fact from fiction.

The position paper, drafted by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), outlines the background, definitions, and practical implications of the Year 2000 computer glitch.

The Y2K bug comes from antiquated hardware and software formats that denote years in two-digit formats, such as "98" for 1998 and "99" for 1999. The glitch will occur in 2000, when computers are either fooled into thinking the year is 1900 or interpret the 2000 as a meaningless "00." The glitch could throw out of whack everything from bank systems to building security procedures, observers warn.

Most discussion about Y2K focuses on "legacy" mainframe computer systems. With a great deal of effort and expense, these can be repaired or replaced. But most observers agree that the biggest and most widespread disruptions might be caused by a far tougher Y2K problem to fix, namely, embedded systems that are not Y2K compliant, according to Ed Yardeni, chief economist for Duetsche Bank Securities and Y2K pundit.

There are billions of embedded systems all over the planet. Most are not date sensitive. But some are, and no one can tell where they all are and how many of them might fail, experts said.

According to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), embedded systems are used to control, monitor, or assist the operation of equipment, machinery, or plants. "Embedded" means they are an integral part of the system.

Consequently, a casual observer won't see them and even a skilled technician might Back to Year 2000 Index Page need to examine the operation of a piece of equipment for some time before concluding that an embedded control device is in there.

Jeff Weir, communications director for the Semiconductor Industry Association, said the purpose of the Y2K position paper is to raise public awareness and provide an overview of the semiconductor industry's role in addressing the Y2K issue.

For example, the paper explains how chip companies are conducting extensive research and evaluation programs to resolve the Y2K problems within their control.

Defending the timing of the release of the position paper--just a little more than 390 days before the problematic date change--Weir said his organization wanted to put it out at a time when the issue was on the radar screens of more than just "technology geeks."

"Now is the time to say 'we are in the mix and we want to help you with this,'" he said. "We didn't want people with less experience on the issue to put out information on this."

According to the SIA paper, the vast majority of semiconductors are incapable of generating, comparing, or sorting date information. As a result, these semiconductors are unaffected by the Y2K problem. However, the paper goes on to state that a small percentage of semiconductors are capable of generating or processing date information when software programs that perform these functions are added to the chip.

In the final analysis, the SIA urges individuals and businesses to contact the manufacturers of finished electronic products to figure out whether those products are Y2K ready.