What Year 2000 bug?

Been hear­ing all about the Year 2000 bug these days. In a lit­tle over a year civ­i­liza­tion as we know it will col­lapse into utter chaos. Or, depend­ing on who you ask, noth­ing at all will hap­pen and nobody needs to wor­ry about a thing because it’s all tak­en care of. Or any­way, it will be all tak­en care of by the time it mat­ters. It’s the sec­ond group that scares me.

But what is going to hap­pen? I mean, this is some­thing that is get­ting a lot of press these days and nobody real­ly seems to know how well, if at all, our insti­tu­tions have pre­pared for this piece of pro­gram­mers’ short-sightedness.

Well, it seems that like every­thing else in this life, the Dev­il has tak­en res­i­dence in the details. A friend of mine has already been bit­ten by the Y2K bug. In going to make a cred­it-card pur­chase, his card was declined. Why? The com­put­er thought it had expired. The expi­ra­tion date on his card is some­time in 2000, or as it says on the card «00».

The bank that issued him the card doesn’t have a Y2K prob­lem. They’ve already addressed it and have no plans to spend any more mon­ey on this par­tic­u­lar bug­bear. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the prob­lem doesn’t end at that bank’s main­frames. The prob­lem extends out to the mil­lions of ter­mi­nals across the coun­try that busi­ness own­ers and con­sumers count on to allow them to make trans­ac­tions. Make no mis­take: many of these ter­mi­nals are already Y2K-com­pli­ant. Nobody real­ly knows how many are out there that aren’t. Again, the prob­lem is that the bank doesn’t rec­og­nize that there is a problem.

Fur­ther­more there’s the self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy the­o­ry, which says that since peo­ple will be in a pan­ic about los­ing all their mon­ey, or even pru­dent­ly stock­ing up on cash in case there’s a prob­lem with their account while the banks fix the prob­lem, a cash short­age will be cre­at­ed by peo­ple want­i­ng actu­al mon­ey, not num­bers in a book. The vast major­i­ty of the mon­ey in the world is not print­ed on paper but floats around elec­tron­i­cal­ly. If there’s not enough paper mon­ey to go around, it’s 1929 all over again.

Be all this as it may, I doubt that any­one real­ly knows whether this is a prob­lem of dis­as­trous pro­por­tions. Those who most loud­ly decry the end of the dig­i­tal world are those who are in a posi­tion to make mon­ey from it. There is no doubt that a small group of COBOL pro­gram­mers have found their skills to be mar­ketable once again. Prob­a­bly more mar­ketable than they were when they built the pro­grams that they are now being hired to fix.

There is no ques­tion that there will be some prob­lems stem­ming from the Y2K prob­lem. And there’s no ques­tion that the rea­son that we got into this mess is because com­put­ing made the jump from aca­d­e­m­ic to com­mer­cial prob­a­bly too fast. It’s one thing for an exper­i­men­tal sys­tem to be designed with no thought to the future. It’s quite anoth­er for the sys­tems on which our econ­o­my depends to have been designed with such appar­ent lack of foresight.

The Y2K prob­lem is a bare­ly sig­nif­i­cant symp­tom of a much larg­er prob­lem at large in the com­put­er indus­try. As school­child­ren we were told that haste makes waste, advice we are all too quick to ignore. In a bid to please stock­hold­ers, cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca rarely looks six months into the future. Long-term ben­e­fit is a for­got­ten term. Cor­po­rate raiders destroy the future of com­pa­nies in exchange for a bet­ter stock price today, and are hailed as heroes, because the ben­e­fi­cia­ries have the voic­es and the vic­tims do not.

If you bring a bet­ter mouse­trap to the table, it must be ready to go out of the box. Man­age­ment asks «what’s in it for me today?» and the soft­ware indus­try responds that it speaks cor­po­rate lin­go by answer­ing a ques­tion with a ques­tion: «where do you want to go today?»

Com­put­er Sci­ence the­o­rists may enjoy the «lux­u­ry» of devel­op­ing ideas, but any idea or new tool brought into an indus­tri­al forum has a lim­it­ed time in which it must mature. «Yes,» the busi­ness­man says, «com­put­er­ized account­ing looks as though it does have many ben­e­fits. You‘ve shown me all the pieces to con­vince me that it can be done. But we won’t pay for it unless you can deliv­er with­in the hour.» Pre­cious few com­pa­nies in today‘s mar­ket both­er with research and devel­op­ment. Those that do, such as main­tain con­ser­v­a­tive growth and are not the dar­lings of the mar­ket. His­tor­i­cal­ly tech­nol­o­gy prod­ucts that require greater devel­op­ment time lose in the mar­ket because either they lose the pre­cious FTM (first to mar­ket) sta­tus or because they are released pre­ma­ture­ly and have too many prob­lems. One exam­ple that comes to mind is Open­Doc, scrapped when it could not com­pete with the already fin­ished although far less func­tion­al and use­ful OLE, which lat­er became called OLE2 and ActiveX; per­haps now ActiveX has become as pow­er­ful as the Open­Doc archi­tec­ture, but is much more resource-drain­ing, inef­fi­cient, and not designed to be used by any­one but pro­fes­sion­al pro­gram­mers. It is not an empow­er­ing and use­ful tech­nol­o­gy, but rather one that takes the pow­er of com­put­ers far­ther out of the hands of the end users.

In this envi­ron­ment, is it any won­der that «aca­d­e­m­ic» issues such as the longevi­ty of the soft­ware archi­tec­ture of the prod­ucts one devel­ops are left by the way­side? Why would a project man­ag­er, know­ing their job was at stake, waste time and resources mak­ing cer­tain that a prod­uct would still work ten, fif­teen or twen­ty years down the line? By that time nobody could be held account­able for slop­py work any­how. Even with­out threats to one’s liveli­hood, it is well-known that one can make ten times as much mon­ey from a job done in half the time. Who can be blamed if the extra resources don’t get put into mak­ing the prod­uct sta­ble after deliv­ery? Who would dare admit that the prod­uct still had faults to be fixed after the sale has gone through?

What­ev­er hap­pens after mid­night of Decem­ber 31, 1999 will be the result of our own impa­tience and our own greed. It’s easy to blame prob­lems on the greed of the fat­cat cor­po­ra­tions, but the investors demand­ing greater and greater returns extend to and include peo­ple in the low­er class. Any­one with a 401K is a par­tic­i­pant. Any­one who buys soft­ware or hard­ware from com­pa­nies that don’t do their own research and devel­op­ment is an acces­so­ry. And those who make their tech­nol­o­gy deci­sions based on imme­di­a­cy rather than tech­ni­cal mer­it, even a fam­i­ly buy­ing a com­put­er bun­dled with soft­ware, is hold­ing the smok­ing gun to the prob­lems we’ll encounter as the clock strikes mid­night a lit­tle more than a year from now.

Here’s the real kick­er, though. The «Year 2000 Bug» is sexy and easy to under­stand. Jour­nal­ists can describe it halfway accu­rate­ly, and even some­one not versed in com­put­er sci­ence can under­stand the basics of the prob­lem giv­en a short, if sim­pli­fied, descrip­tion. It fits with what we under­stand from look­ing at dig­i­tal clocks and auto odome­ters. Yet the Y2K prob­lem isn’t some­thing that must be addressed at the lev­el of the oper­at­ing sys­tem. It’s a prob­lem that affects appli­ca­tions and embed­ded sys­tems, mostly.

I want to know what will hap­pen rough­ly two bil­lion sec­onds after Jan­u­ary 1, 1970. «The Year 2038 Bug» has no sexy ring to it for jour­nal­ists to latch onto, and explain­ing base two arith­metic to the gen­er­al pop­u­lace is not as easy as look­ing at a dig­i­tal clock. The media and the gen­er­al pub­lic won’t want to hear about it. Espe­cial­ly if there are min­i­mal prob­lems with Y2K, there will not be any resources put into fix­ing it. Y2K has got­ten a lot of press, yet most com­pa­nies wait­ed until the prob­lem was less than two years away before begin­ning to address the prob­lem. 2038 will be a tougher, because it will address both the appli­ca­tions’ han­dling of time and the oper­at­ing sys­tems’ han­dling of time. My guess is that no one will try and fix it until six months before dis­as­ter hits.

Unless of course, a few air­planes fall out of the sky this time. Maybe then we’ll learn our les­son. All this sup­posed progress and still we need peo­ple to die before we’ll learn a lesson?

I hope I’m wrong.

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