Y2K: 10 years later

IT's first big public challenge remembered, its seriousness still debated -- and the 2038 'son of Y2K' bug still to occur

It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since the dreaded Millennium Bug put fear into the hearts of technology specialists, software developers, business executives, and legal departments everywhere.

Fears of massive system failures abounded, including worries about errant missile launches thanks to computers confused about what century we were in. But the calendar flipped from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000, with the world relatively unscathed from the Y2K switchover.

Ironically, the clock ticking to Jan. 19, 2038, poses a similar threat to some systems today. Languages such as C, C++, and early Unix languages stored dates in an odd way beginning in 1970, says Drake Coker, chief technologist for application development at Cobol provider Micro Focus. "That overflows 32 bits" on Jan. 19, 2038, Coker says. Older software will experience the problem, he says, but "it won't be as big" of a problem as Y2K.

The Y2K countdown: Tech's big drama

If you worked in technology, you might remember that New Year's Day as different from others. Instead of watching college football games or recovering from the previous night's celebrations, you may have had to work or at least be on call to keep watch over potential Y2K-generated mishaps.

These days, however, the biggest reminder of Y2K comes perhaps from TV reruns of the cult classic film, "Office Space," which had depressed computer specialist Peter Gibbons, played by Ron Livingston, explaining the Y2K switch to waitress Joanna, played by Jennifer Aniston. That scene certainly dates the movie.

For anyone who needs an explanation after all these years, the Millennium Bug referred to computer systems that used two-digit dates because programmers at the dawn of computing did not think far enough ahead to put in four digits. So when the 1990s made way for the year 2000, the date, "99" would then become "00," with systems believing the world had just reverted to 1900 instead of advancing to the year 2000. "The fundamental issue was the date ranges," says Josh Aaron, president of Business Technology Partners, a technology consulting firm.

A now-retired technologist who worked for British Telecom 10 years ago recalls the extensive efforts to tend to Y2K. "It all got done, and it was a hell of a lot of work involved, and of course once you fix it, you've got to test it," says David Quinn, who ran the systems software group at BT.

Y2K was fixed because people prepared for it, Quinn says. "I wrote some of those systems" for billing and order management, he says. "I know the dates were wrong."

A decade after Y2K, technologists reflected back to InfoWorld on that time and the lessons learned, with some disagreement over whether Y2K turned out to be basically a nonevent because millions of dollars were spent in a heroic effort in advance to fix the problem or because the problem was overblown in the first place.

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Paul Krill

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