White House officials fear that Feb. 29, 2000 may cause problems for computers that don't recognize 2000 as a leap year. They say systems could erroneously mistake the last day of February as March 1.
But officials may have a tough time convincing corporate computer managers and consultants that the leap year problem is real. The White House is still attempting to justify the billions of dollars spent to defend against a Y2K-related meltdown that never happened.
Companies in the United States spent $100 billion to fix computer systems in preparation for the date change. The government's share of the cost for its own systems was $8.5 billion.
The millennium bug, or Y2K glitch, was a programming shortcut in which computers recognized only two digits for a year, such as 99 for the year 1999. As the date change neared, concerns centered on the possibility that systems could mistake the year 2000 for 1900 and malfunction.
But as New Year?s Eve passed, few problems materialized. Analysts and information technology executives consider the leap year problem an attempt by some to keep alive what should be a nonissue.
"It's something to be cautious of, but it's not something that could bring down systems and cause havoc," said Kazim Isfahani, an analyst at Giga Information Group. "It's a pop vs. a bang. I think there are some consultants and experts out there that haven't weaned themselves from Y2K hype and are looking to grab on to something."
Although many analysts dismiss concerns over any type of leap year computer glitch, some technology consultants and industry experts say this year is special--one that only occurs once every 400 years.
The 365-day calendar does not exactly match the earth's cycle around the sun, so an extra day in February every four years brings it roughly into step again. However, leap days normally are skipped in years ending in "00." All years divisible by four are leap years, except those divisible by 100-?unless they are also divisible by 400. That makes 2000 a leap year, but not 2100.
Government officials are concerned that some programmers, while working on their Y2K projects, might have forgotten that 2000 is indeed a leap year.
"We're not expecting any major failures, but we do think there may be some glitches," said Jack Gribben, a spokesman for the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. "We're going to monitor it because experts have pointed to this date to look out for."
The council said federal computer systems had to be checked for the ability to process a number of noteworthy dates, including Feb. 29, before they could be certified as Y2K compliant.
One expert said problems could still surface. "Over the last couple of years, when programmers realized that Y2K is indeed a leap year, changes have been made," said Peter de Jager, who has been an outspoken pundit on Year 2000 issues. "Did we get all the changes? Unlikely."
Still, de Jager said problems will likely be minimal.
"We have program problems relating to every leap year," he said. "This year we'll have the same number of leap year problems plus additional ones. You may see some problems, but you won't hear anything major relating to this. Problems that do occur will be fixed in a day or two."
Isfahani said he isn't overly concerned about the leap year issue because most information technology professionals and programmers are aware of the possibilities and are prepared for them.
Other significant dates have come and gone with little problem or fanfare. Last year, April 9, 1999--the 99th day of the year, expected to cause computer failures--passed with little concern. Sept. 9, 1999, also written as 9-9-99, was expected to cause numerous of system malfunctions. Typically a string of nines is used as a programming code to shut down a system. Yet the date passed uneventfully, and computers remained online.
Since history has shown that other significant dates have passed without problems, most analysts believe the leap year date will go over without any major failures.
"I really don't think this is a major deal," Isfahani said.
Even though White House officials aren't expecting any significant problems, they plan to open the Y2K Council's Information Coordination Center (ICC) from Feb. 28 to March 1. The center was the hub of operations during federal preparations for the year 2000.
Roughly 75 officials from a host of federal agencies will work at the ICC to compile information about the status of key systems across the United States.
Internationally, John Koskinen, chairman of the president's Y2K council, will participate in scheduled conference calls over the three-day period. Koskinen is also expected to hold press conferences on Feb. 29 and March 1.
Gribben said that the ICC will close its doors for good on March 1. The council was established in March 1998 to help federal agencies prepare for the Y2K bug.