Microsoft shuffles towards 2000

The knowledge gap between the information technologist and average business user just grew a little wider. I was stunned when an end user told me Bill Gates would probably solve the year 2000 problem soon. At first I thought he was joking, but he was serious.

How would Gates accomplish that? I buried that episode away as just another odd year 2000 encounter until I learned that a reporter asked US Attorney-General Janet Reno if the government would drop its Microsoft lawsuit if Gates solved the year 2000 problem. I was shocked.

How did that notion arise? It seems individuals outside IT have misinterpreted Microsoft's dominance in the PC market as an ability to manipulate an infinite spectrum of technology whenever the company pleases. That idea, while far-fetched, must be dispelled because it could lead to the misconception that the year 2000 problem can be easily solved.

It helps put the issue into perspective by examining Microsoft's handling of the year 2000 problem to date. Gates, when asked about the year 2000 at Microsoft's CEO Summit last May, told attendees, "PCs are in good shape in this respect." Statements such as that one, coupled with Gates' claim that "you have a consulting industry that's grown up to exaggerate the nature of the problem," trivialised the year 2000 issue at a time when the industry needed help to build executive support to address the problem.

That's disconcerting in light of the fact that Microsoft didn't disclose compliance data for its own products until April and has disclosed information on only 50 or so of its 8500 products. Finding out now that Windows NT and Windows 95, according to Microsoft's Web site, are compliant "with issues" further demonstrates that research into the matter is dragging.

It's clear that Microsoft is labouriously sifting through its legacy software portfolio and slowly posting year 2000 compliance data, like many other vendors. The big difference is that many of the other vendors, with IBM taking a lead, began communicating that information more than two years ago. Microsoft finds itself not as a year 2000 leader but as a reluctant follower, struggling to figure out which of its products will and will not function properly as the century draws to a close.

All of that may come as a surprise to those who think Microsoft can spearhead the drive to make the world year 2000-compliant. But there's a deeper message here: people who lack real-life experience in large-scale computer systems mistakenly believe year 2000 is a narrowly defined problem that lends itself to a narrowly defined solution.

How can there be a single solution to a problem that infects millions of computers, databases, vendor packages, interfaces and embedded devices worldwide? Even if a silver-bullet solution did come along, historically slow mobilisation lead times would stop it from being deployed in time to make a difference.

Business leaders must stop looking for quick fixes and focus on mitigating risks to critical systems and suppliers. That requires fixing and testing high-priority systems, triaging nonessential technologies and building contingency plans for key business functions. We have roughly 18 months left, and Microsoft won't save us. Only we can do that now.

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William Ulrich

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