Profile of the pest

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about the Year 2000 problem--a glitch that may cause computer systems to crash or fail on January 1, 2000.

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
4 min read
From software programmers scrambling to test code to citizens curious about the hype concerning this computer bug, questions abound about what exactly the Year 2000 issue is, its root cause, and how to get rid of it.

What is the Year 2000 problem?
The Year 2000 problem is a glitch within many date sensitive software programs that may cause systems to crash or fail at the turn of the century--January 1, 2000.

What causes the millennium bug?
The bug is caused by antiquated software code. Programmers in the 1960s often used two digits to denote the date, such as "98" for 1998. In the 1980s, programmers realized the danger in using this shorthand, but lots of software with old code is still in circulation and being used. On January 1, 2000, that code, if not fixed, may read the date as either 1900 or as a meaningless "00".

What kinds of products and transactions might be affected by the Y2K bug?
Any product that is dependent on software that is programmed with two-digit abbreviations for the date. That includes everything from your Quicken program, to credit card transactions, to security systems.

What kinds of organizations and services are there to help companies deal with the problem?
Many software companies have developed tools that will aid you in analyzing what kinds of fixes your software needs to be made compliant. Such companies are also selling tools that will help you actually make those fixes, as well as tools that will test your software after it has been fixed to ensure the glitch is eradicated. Others offer consulting, seminars, and general up-to-date information about the issue.

For example, SEEK provides a suite of tools and products for century date correction and Precision Computing offers products, consulting services, and seminars regarding the issue, while Y2KNet was established to serve the public as an educational resource and online briefing site regarding Year 2000 computer date-change problems.

How can we tell if our software is Y2K compliant or not?
Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and many other companies have posted on their Web sites a list detailing which of their products are ready for the new millennium and which will need to be upgraded.

What dates should we use in testing our software to make sure it's Y2K-compliant?
Giga Information Group recommends that companies test their software to make sure it recognizes a range of dates: 0000-00-00; 1900-1-1; 1998-12-31; 1999-1-1; 1999-9-1; 1999-9-9; 1999-9-10; 1999-12-31; 2000-1-1; 2000-1-10; 2000-2-29; 2000-3-1; 2000-10-1; 2000-10-10; 2000-12-31; 2001-1-1; 2004-2-29; 2004-12-31

Are there existing federal, state, or industry regulations that govern the steps which we must take to become compliant?
Many industries, such as airlines, are being regulated by the federal government, which has created the Council on Year 2000 Conversion, headed by John Koskinen, and the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, headed by Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah). The Senate Special Committee is examining each industry's progress and distributing public reports on those finds.

Industry groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the financial services industry have both attained permission from the Justice Department to share information about fixing the Year 2000 bug in their products. Such organizations often post information on a Web site that details which companies' products are compliant. For example, the Securities Industry Association has set up a number of Y2K services for that industry.

What kinds of consequences could occur if businesses and government organizations haven't solved their Year 2000 issues by January 1, 2000?
Though predictions vary widely as to how much damage the bug will cause, if a business or industry's software programs have not been updated, the bug is sure to cause some amount of chaos, as those products won't process dates after 2000. That's likely to disrupt normal business processes, costing affected companies, as well as their customers, both time and money.

Gartner Group analysts pin the cost of fixing the Back to Year 2000 Index Page glitch at anywhere from $300 billion to $600 billion worldwide, the federal government estimates it will spend more than $5 billion to eradicate the software muncher, while some Year 2000 pundits are predicting a worldwide recession when the bug hits. Some experts say the bug will shut down companies, jam communications, and even freeze world trade if it is not eradicated.

Another possible consequence companies may face if their software has not been updated is lawsuits from users who are affected by the glitch. And users who are forced to pay for Y2K upgrades instead of receiving them free of charge, may retaliate with legal action against the company.

Montgomery Securities estimates that the Y2K fix will cost at least $300 billion in the United States alone and as much as $600 billion for worldwide fixes, a figure that could rise to a trillion when legal costs are included.  

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