Chip industry distances itself from Y2K issue

The US Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) in a paper issued last week sought to play down the role of its members' products with respect to the looming year 2000 crisis.

The vast majority of semiconductors -- including the microprocessors and memory devices used in PCs -- are incapable of generating, comparing or sorting date information, and as a result are not affected by the 2000 problem, the SIA said in the paper.

At least one analyst agreed and said the issue is more a question of whether or not software programs will behave correctly when the new millennium arrives. "It's absolutely a software problem, and it's mostly a problem at the enterprise level," said Tom Starnes, principal analyst for embedded microcomponents with market research firm Dataquest.

However, the SIA acknowledged that a "small percentage" of semiconductors could be sensitive to the date change. They include non-volatile memory chips, the real-time clocks that regulate time in PCs, and the microcontrollers used in a range of embedded systems including industrial equipment, laser printers, microwave ovens and automobiles.

A "small percentage" in the $US137 billion global semiconductor industry could mean a lot of chips, acknowledged SIA spokesman Jeff Weir.

"If you're trying to size up the number of chips that might have some date-related programming it's probably in the millions, but there's no real way of knowing. Our organisation keeps track of production, sales and figures like that, but even we don't have the data to come up with an accurate guess," Weir said.

However, a minor chip malfunction in those embedded devices probably won't result in the kind of end-of-the-world mayhem that some doomsayers have predicted, Dataquest's Starnes said.

"Clearly there is the potential for many products to be affected, but the extent of the problem depends on how those products behave when they do go wrong. For the majority of embedded applications I don't think there will be anything more than the 'Gee, look, I have to reset the clock' kinds of issues," Starnes said.

A limited number of industrial applications may be more seriously affected, but electrical appliances for the most part won't come to a grinding halt, he predicted.

In any case, the SIA advises consumers to contact the manufacturers of finished goods to ascertain whether or not their products are Y2K ready. Chips that do contain date-related programming typically use programs specified by the manufacturers of the finished products, making it their responsibility, Weir said.

As the SIA concluded in its paper: "The ultimate solution ... is beyond the control of the semiconductor supplier, who cannot identify Y2K readiness issues caused by circuitry or programming that was specified by others."

The purpose of the SIA's paper, posted on its Web site at http://www.semichips.org/, is to raise public awareness of the 2000 issue and to lay out the chip industry's role in the matter.

The Y2K problem stems from the fact that decades ago many software programs were written with only two-digit date fields, in order to conserve memory. When 2000 rolls around electronic products that use a two-digit date field may not know whether "00" means 1900 or 2000, which could cause them to malfunction or shut down on January 1, 2000.

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