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Tech Industry

Countdown to disaster begins

The Year 2000 conference opens to offer solutions to the largest computer problem in history, a monumental glitch that could cancel credit cards and wipe out tax records.

    The Year 2000 conference opened today to offer solutions to the largest computer problem in history, a monumental glitch that could cancel your credit cards, wipe out your tax records at the IRS, and charge you for a year's worth of phone calls in a single day.

    Thirty-five companies are attending the conference in San Francisco, promoting software programs, tools, and system integrators that promise to fix the problem.

    One company, Ciber, is offering to identify and fix the problem with a program called "CIBR2000." Another one, AutoTester, is offering a "total solution software package" to remedy the problem. Yet another, RCG Information Technology, offers an all-in-one package dubbed "Platform 2000."

    Some companies seem to be taking advantage of this potential $30 billion market by contending that they have the only solution. But that's not the case, according to Peter de Jager, one of the conference speakers and an expert on the issue.

    "This a case of 'let the buyer beware,'" he said today. "There is no magic bullet."

    The problem boils down to two digits. Most existing software has the year represented in a two-character format, such as 96 for the year 1996. So when the year 2000 rolls around, most computers will read 00 as 1900.

    Ninety percent of business applications will fail if corrective measures are not taken, according to the research firm, the Gartner Group. To fix the problem, thousands of programs and millions of lines of code need to be examined and possibly modified.

    But the cost can be staggering: A Fortune 1,000 company can expect to spend $1 to $1.50 per line of code to fix, which translates to about $50 million to $100 million or more for each company.

    Many factors are involved in any solution, including cost, measuring the extent of the problem, and fully understanding it, said Eliot Weinman, conference cochairman. "These issues need to be addressed today, not tomorrow," he added.

    Conference cochair William Ulrich offers these tips:

    --mobilize a team to address the problem and draw up a budget.

    --perform an assessment and decide which systems are critical.

    --determine realistic cost estimates and the key aspects of the business that could be affected.

    Ulrich says companies need to take these steps before it's too late. "You may see critical products and services disappear from the market as companies realize how dangerous this problem really is," he said.

    "The reality is that by mid-1997 all the good vendors will have more business than they can eat, and they will start turning down potential clients," de Jager said.