Chapter 9
1999: Y2K Software
Conversion
109
THE REPORTED STORY
The New York Times Abstract:
Every major computer company is gearing up to cope with any problems
that emerge as dates flip over to 2000 in millions of machines at midnight—
first in Asia, then Europe, then the Americas; but IBM and Microsoft probably
have the most at stake in terms of reputation, and potential liability; they have
highest profile on issue, though for very different reasons; IBM introduced
computing to corporations and governments in 1960’s, and origins of Year 2000
problem—storage-saving convention of dropping first two numbers in dates
of years—date back to mainframe era; and an estimated 70 percent of world’s
business data still resides on mainframe computers, most of them IBM
machines; as dominant technology company of personal computer era,
Microsoft is lightning rod for concern about Year 2000 problem partly because
its Windows desktop is face of computing to most users. (Lohr, 1999)
THE BACK STORY
THE MILLENNIUM BUG
The millennium bug, also referred to as the year 2000 or Y2K problem,
resulted from computer programming practices dating back to around 1960.
When programmers used dates, they shortened years to a two-digit form to
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110 Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective
save memory space. Although the cost of memory dropped substantially
over the years, the convention of using the two-digit format (i.e., “60, rather
than 1960) did not change until recently.
The rollover problem occurs when a computer program attempts to
read the date “00, which could mean 1900 or 2000. If the year is read as
“1900, unpredictable computer behavior may occur, which at worst could
trigger a complete shutdown. Computers and other devices that are
susceptible to this behavior were deployed in the utilities, health care,
telecommunications, transportation, financial institutions, government,
and general business sectors. The problem could occur in software, hard-
ware, or data communication. The bug needed to be fixed for each
individual case. Because the United States possesses one fourth of the
world’s computer assets, these fixes were not trivial.
SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON THE YEAR 2000 TECHNOLOGY
P
ROBLEM
On April 2, 1998, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to establish a new
committee to address the year 2000 technology problem. Senator Bob
Bennett was appointed chairman of this committee of seven senators.
Bennett had been involved with the Y2K issue since assuming chairmanship
of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Financial Services and Technology
the previous year. He had authored the Computer Remediation and Share
Holder (CRASH) Protection Act, which required all publicly traded compa-
nies to fully disclose all details on their efforts to meet year 2000 readiness
goals. On introduction of the Bennett bill, the Securities and Exchange
Commission (SEC) issued a new legal bulletin requiring full disclosure by
corporations.
This committee was created to study the impact of Y2K computer
problems on the executive and judicial branches of the federal government,
state governments, and private sector operations in the United States and
abroad. After analysis, it would make recommendations for new legislation,
amendments to existing laws, or administrative actions. Its existence was
authorized through February 29, 2000 (United States Senate, 1998).
INTERIM ASSESSMENTS
After its establishment, the Committee held nine hearings by February
1999 on seven critical economic sectors: financial institutions, telecommunica-
tions, utilities, health care, transportation, government, and general business.
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