Analysis: How religion saved us from the millennium bug

18 May 1998 View Comments
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It is unfair to call the year 2000 date debacle the greatest lawyer-created catastrophe of all time. Industry regulators and consultants must share the blame as well.

They were the people who created the compliance questionnaires which blocked the early sharing of information which would have focused attention on the common hardware and software systems, sub-systems and components which caused the bulk of the problems.

Most of the blame lies with the suppliers who ignored the problem and then tried to turn it into an exercise in global upgrades which they could not deliver. They were doomed when lawyers discovered that suppliers incurred increased liability if they withheld ?best currently available? information on the expected behaviour of their products, including ways of reducing or avoiding Y2K problems without expensive upgrades.

One cannot underestimate the effects of the campaign of the Christian fundamentalists to observe the full twelve days of Christmas from 25 December 1999 to 6 January 2000, and to postpone non-religious celebrations, such as the opening of the Millennium Dome, until 1 January 2001. But for the reduction in traffic, both physical and electronic, the cost in death and destruction could well have dwarfed the estimates that were suppressed from the published version of the 1998 government contingency plans.

The designers of LEO III ? the UK?s first commercial computer ? deserve no blame for considering the problem, and then deciding to stick with two-digit date fields. The decision was made in the 1950s.

Some designers did warn of the need to check for date dependencies during the UK?s switch to a decimalised currency in 1971. They also ensured the necessary changes to ICL?s George III operating system to make sure it would cope with the millennium. That operating system contractually committed the vendor to offer support for 25 years ? until the mid 1980s.

By 1994, when the editor of the annual IMIS Cyberskills Trends Report first asked about year 2000 plans, those with mainframe backgrounds who had survived the redundancies that followed the 1980s boom had already used the slack period of the recession to fix the problem ? or had plans well underway for upgrades or new systems to go live in advance of the problem. But those who had come new into the industry thought it was an old mainframe problem that did not apply to their minis or micros.

The tragedy is that many people realised that a lot of elderly mainframe software was still in use, but those who knew whether it was compliant ? and if not, how to make the necessary amendments ? had long departed. Hence the early image that the year 2000 was a legacy problem of the past that could be solved by moving to a new generation of systems.

But embedded in those new systems were a great many components, both hardware and software, that were not compliant. Moreover, the UK?s cyclical IT skills crisis meant that the skills to plan, manage and implement new systems on the scale necessary were missing. Fate had it that skills availability was at the bottom of its trough in the run up to the millennium.

It took too long for the true nature of the problem to emerge. The reasons were less to do with greed and incompetence than the narrow focus of the suppliers of hardware, software, training and consultancy, and the vulnerability of the many users who had outsourced their technical expertise.

The breakthrough in realisation of the size of the problem came in May 1998 with the G8 millennium summit in Birmingham followed by the Eurim briefing to the members of the European parliament. Or was it the decision of the French government to mount a Minitel service, protected and policed un-der French law with tran- slations of ?best information? from around the world on the most commonly used hardware and software components? Or the rumoured meeting at which six of the world?s largest insurance networks are said to have agreed to mount personal legal action against the directors of the world?s largest hardware and software suppliers unless they provided ?best information? to all registered customers by 31 December 1999?

The Minitel service blew apart any idea that US lawyers would be allowed to control international ecommerce, and reminded users of standards of ease of use, response, resilience and reliability of Minitel that the Internet in 1988 still could not match. It opened the way to a truly global, multi- lingual and multi-cultural information society.

Unfortunately, the Minitel information was ignored by much of the IT community because of its inability to comprehend any language other than English. Luckily, the action of the French government shamed the leading vendors into issuing full information on the expected behaviour of their entire product lines.

This revealed that for many of the most common non-compliant systems the date was either irrelevant or could be corrected by a simple reset on 1 January and 1 March, albeit still showing as 1900, not 2000. It also enabled a rapid recovery from the potentially catastrophic fall in new hardware and software orders in mid-1998 onwards which had threatened to collapse the increasingly IT-dependant US economy.

Even so, the information did not cover all systems, let alone the many customised packages. Problems in communications-dependent systems, including much of the Internet, could still have led to global chaos but for the lead of the Christian Church.

Fears were growing that even if the world?s IT systems survived the millennium, the criminal fraternity would sabotage them to create an opportunity for mayhem.

The so-called Millennium Parade and Prayer movement put paid to any such plans. We all remember how every high street was manned by members of the uniformed services as the parades passed.

We tend to forget how the regular police and armed forces were held in reserve in full-riot equipment, less the festivities turn sour.

We also forget the price paid by the IT industry and professionals of the day as their credibility crumbled and the businessmen, concerned with reliable delivery to time, price and performance, took over from the technology enthusiasts.

Back to the future: How we survived the millennium

This was the runner-up in the IMIS-Computing 2020 Hindsight competition held on 21 May 2020. It was found this month in a time warp by Philip Virgo, strategic advisor to the Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS)

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