The Year 2000: You and the Internet

By Joe Burns

Use these to jump around or read it all...
[What's Wrong With Our Computers?]
[The Actual Problem -- In Detail]
[What Is Going To Happen?]
[Am I Compliant?]
[What About The Internet?]
[Can It Be Fixed?]
[What Should I Do?]
[What If I Am Non-Compliant?]
[What Do You Think Will Happen?]

To The Reader: Obviously this tutorial is long since out of date. The big day has come and gone without much concern. I've left it on the site in case anyone would need to cite it in research or just read it again for fun. I cannot guarantee that any of the links in the tutorial are even operational. They were when I last visited. Enjoy.

     Unless you've been living in a cave for the last year or so, you have no doubt heard of the impending doom or overblown hype of the Year 2000 problem. Watch any Sunday news program, and you'll hear that this is looking to be the downfall of civilization or a boon for the U.S. economy.

     What I will attempt to do here is describe the problem, in great detail, and allow you to make your own decision: will the world grind to a halt, or will we merely be left with some amusing anecdotes on the morning of January 1st, 2000?

     This tutorial is a result of my own research into the Year 2000 problem. The data was gathered from the Internet, news clippings, magazines, and personal interviews with:
     Richard Lawson, one of the original 1970s COBOL programmers and now head of consulting at E-Trans.
     Ken Kopf, Internet Technical Supervisor at Susquehanna University
     Scott Musser, Internet technician at Sunlink.net in central Pennsylvania.
     Chris Lutrell, Web Technician, EarthWeb, Inc.

What's Wrong With Our Computers?

     You have probably heard the Year 2000 (or Y2K) problem explained as a concern regarding a two- or a four-digit year. The thinking is this: If your computer is set up to only accept or work with a two-digit year (98, 99, etc.) then when the Year 2000 rolls around, the date will become double zero (00). The problem is that double zero is not a year. It's nothing. The computer will either crash, throw an error and stop working, or create terrible mistakes in figuring data that relies on the year.
     But what if the computer understands that double zero is a year? Then you may be in luck. Or the computer may see the double zero as 1900 rather than 2000. If that's the case, only those people that have reached the ripe old age of 101 will exist to your computer. See the problem?

I had a national opinion piece published by Scripts Howard in February of 1997 on the Y2K problem. If you'd like to read it, here's the original text. The piece is jazzed up for entertainment value, but it gets the point across.

The Actual Problem -- In Detail

     Richard Lawsen was one of the original COBOL programmers in the early 1970s. COBOL is an acronym that stands for Common Business Oriented Language. The reason I am stuck on COBOL is that it is at the root of the problem. And just because you haven't heard of the language until now doesn't mean it no longer exists. Remember your taxes last year? The forms were all processed using COBOL systems. The U.S. Government could be the hardest hit in this 2000 fiasco. The following comes from my very interesting interview with Mr. Lawsen.

     Here's the deal. In the 1970s, computers were big and bulky. The largest hard drive at the time was seven megabytes and was roughly the size of a washing machine. It cost $50,000, but you could lease one from IBM for around 2 grand a month. So computer hard drive space was at a minimum, and what little there was remained very expensive. That created the need to input data in the smallest fashion available.
     Dates are big in computer programming. You probably don't have three programs on your computer that don't use a date, if you have any at all. It was the same thing back in the 1970s. Most computer input was business data which required multiple dates.
     The decision was made to save space by using the Julian calendar five-number format.
     Here's an example. Today's date, the date I am writing this piece, is July 17, 1998. In the Julian calendar format, that would be:


     The first two numbers are the year and the last three numbers are the day of the year out of 365, or 366 for a leap year.

     In the BIOS (Basic Input-Output System) of the computer was what's known as an algorithm, or fancy mathematical formula, that would turn that five-number code into the more familiar Gregorian calendar format of 7/17/1998, or 7/7/98, or July 17, 1998, or whatever you set the algorithm to produce.

     After Mr. Lawsen explained this to me, I asked what I thought was the blatant question. Didn't you see that in around 30 years the Julian format would reach 99365?
     He answered, "Yes." In fact he said that that was brought up many times. He and his superiors simply thought that later programmers would be able to fix the problem. In fact, the 99365 date was so well known as a doomsday date that it was used as the "don't erase" code for any file they wanted to keep.

     And those "don't erase" codes are sitting all over computers today.

     So you would think that future programmers would have solved the problem, seeing as it was well known. Well, the first chance given was when IBM sought to purchase a new form of operating system for their "desktop" models. They ended up buying this program called DOS (Disc Operating System) from a Harvard man named Bill Gates.
     But alas, the DOS program had adopted the problem format so even today, many IBM machines -- even Windows 95 machines, may have problems.

Did Anyone Repair the Date Problem?

     Sure. Steve Jobs and the fine people at Apple got it right as did AT&T when they created UNIX, the most used server operating system on the Internet.
     How it was done is a little hard to explain, but the general idea was that the date would be produced by a running clock rather than a representation. On a certain date, say January 1, 1970, you set your computer to count up in milliseconds. Then you use an algorithm to figure the date off of that. You have to make a few small changes in the BIOS so that it accepts a four-digit year, but when the clocks turn over to the Year 2000, it's just another date created from a thousand ticks a second.
     If I remember correctly, Apple and UNIX machines will not have a problem with their dates until the year 29,227, give or take a couple years.

What Is Going To Happen?

     Well, it depends on whom you speak to. Most of the people I interviewed for this piece felt there would not be a world-stopping meltdown of computer systems. Their take was that there would be small brush fires here and there that would be put out as they happen. One of the people I interviewed said that we'll never fix everything before the Year 2000. Most of the repairs will take place the first week in January.

The Key Word Is Compliance

     The major systems are being taken care of, with the notable exception of the U.S. Government. I am not hearing a lot of good things about their getting up to Year 2000 "compliance." Your power will probably still work. The phone system will probably still work. The Internet will probably still work. Where most people see the problems are all the small support programs. For instance, your computer will probably run just fine, but your older spreadsheet will conk out.

The Domino Effect

     This is a little scary. Many systems, the stock market for instance, rely on more than itself. The stock market is attached to systems all over the world. Now it may be that 49 out of 50 systems along the way are up to Year 2000 compliance. But it's that last one that will mess up everything in its path.
     This is truly a test of the "weakest link in the chain" theory.

Will Airplanes Drop Out of the Sky?

     I don't know. I made that morbid heading because that is a real concern to many people. Remember, far more than your data records and video games rely on computer processors to operate. In the past military aircraft that weren't properly programmed turned upside down when they crossed the equator because of a glitch in the navigation system.
     Remember also that microprocessors do more than operate in real time. They often make predictions. Imagine if you are running a system that will forecast dollars spent. Will that system be able to produce data past the Year 2000? And if it does produce data, will that data be corrupt because of bad algorithms?

     There's a very good chance that elevators made after a certain year won't run or will stop en route. Escalators, too, but those will be much easier to get off of. I've heard that certain Jeep Cherokees will not start after the Year 2000. There are all kinds of stories about electrical appliances that will stop working. Yes, your toaster could get hit by the Year 2000 bug.

     If you'd like to read a few news clippings regarding the problem, go to the Press Clippings section of Year2000.com. In fact, head to http://www.year2000.com itself. It is a wonderful site. See also http://www.y2kinfo.com/ for news and information.

Am I Compliant?

     Test it out for yourself. The easiest way is to go into your computer's system, set the date to the Year 2000, reboot, and see what happens. But that method could really mess you up if you do have problems.

     The next best method is to use a program to check your computer's compliance. Here's a link to NSTL's Year 2000 Testing program. I have used it on all three of my home computers and my university used it to check every computer on campus. What a job that was. Thank goodness for student assistants.
     In case you're wondering, we did find a few minor problems. Every PC on campus is running Windows 95. They all passed, but many must have the date manually updated. Once that's done, no sweat. All of our Internet servers and Apple computers passed.
     Finally, you could always surf to the Web site of your computer's manufacturer. The sites I visited have their Year 2000 specs posted for the world to see.

     Here are links to Apple's Year 2000 statement, IBM's Statement, and Microsoft's Year 2000 Resource Center.
     You can go to Yahoo's Computer Retailers page to look up your manufacturer's site.
     You'll also want to check the sites of any peripherals your computer might have. These are hardware pieces such as printers, modems, sound cards, video cards, scanners, etc. Here's a link to Yahoo's Peripheral Retailers page. You'll probably find your manufacturer there.

What About The Internet?

     Good question. I figured that this huge web of computers, all interconnected by telephone lines, would be done for. But according to the people I interviewed, it looks like just the opposite. The Internet is in pretty good shape, because of its late birthday. In computer terms, the Internet is a toddler. Two of the people I spoke with said their service wasn't even on line until 1992.
     But just to be thorough, I looked into it.


     The vast majority of servers on the Internet are running either UNIX or WindowsNT operating systems. UNIX (and AIX) operating systems appear good to go. What few bugs might be apparent are being looked into. Here's a page from IBM explaining the concerns and offering patches.

     Even though UNIX is date-compliant, one of the tech people I spoke with said that there are a lot of UNIX machines out there that are getting support data from DOS boxes and that might cause a problem. But it is a well-known concern and should be taken care of. Any system that is taking their date and timing off of the Global Positioning System (GPS) or the ground version of GPS -- radio stations WWV out of Colorado or WWVH out of Hawaii-- shouldn't have any trouble.
     Servers running WindowsNT do have problems. Again, depending on to whom you speak, it's either a major concern or none at all. Microsoft is offering tips and patches to repair any holes in the system here.

     One of the technicians I spoke with said that the real concerns are in the IBM servers that are still running 386 or 486 brains. For the most part those servers were retired a long time ago. They are just way too slow. However, some are still around acting as print servers and in other support modes. But this is also a known concern and should be taken care of by the Year 2000.

Phone Lines

     This system also appears to be in compliance. Most of the routers are UNIX. Plus, the phone companies are quite aware of the problem and are working to get up to snuff.
     If you'd like to read more, here's AT&T's Year 2000 page. I didn't find anything on the MCI or Sprint pages. But if you'd like to visit your carrier's home page, here's Yahoo's Long Distance Carriers page. You'll need to call your local carrier yourself, but it's not required.


     Netscape claims it is Year 2000 compliant. Explorer does, too, as long as you use the free patches they are offering.
     You'll find Netscape's compliance statements here. Microsoft Explorer's compliant statements and patches are available here.

     I didn't find anything on Opera's page. But by the time you read this, there might be. If you use a different browser than the three listed here, you should go to that browser's home page and see what they say about the product. Here's Yahoo's Browser Page with links to almost all available browsers.

Java Applets

     No sweat. The language and thus all applets are Year 2000 compliant. Here's a short statement from the Java Web site.


     Now we have a problem.

     According to the Netscape page, if you are running Netscape or Explorer version 4.0 (or better), then you are working with JavaScript version 1.2. That version of JavaScript is Year 2000 compliant in that it will work with a four-digit year. In fact, version 1.2 has a new Event Handler command "getfullYear()" that will return a four-digit year rather than a two.

     You will only have trouble with older versions of JavaScript if you perform an event that deals with the date. Other items will work just fine. Where one needs to be careful is when JavaScript is used to determine a date past the Year 2000. Depending on the field allowed for the date, either "00" or "-1" will be returned.
     Those using JavaScript to display or work with dates in forms should extend the text area for the date to allow for four digits.

PERL and C++

     These are the most common languages for writing CGIs. Both are compliant.

Active X and Visual Basic Script

     I couldn't find anything on either. If you know the answer, I'd love to hear it.

Can It Be Fixed?

     Yes, but not in a heartbeat. I am already starting to see programs that claim they can fix it all in a jiffy. Well, maybe some programs can be fixed in a jiffy, but not the massive COBOL programs that we depend on so much. If you know COBOL programming, this year and the next should be pretty good for you.
     I'm also told that India will profit from our computers. India apparently has a large, English-speaking, COBOL-educated population, and they are making money combing through the millions of lines of data to find all the bugs.

     That's why it won't be a quick fix. You can't just erase data. The problem exists in both the software and in the machine. Both must be updated, or a new algorithm must be employed to get the correct date. Plus there's the problem of what is the date? Is it */*/** or */*/****, or "month-date-year" in text or what? It could change from machine to machine or program to program. To fix it, you literally have to go into the lines of code and pick out the bugs.

     If you haven't started combing through data by now, I would bet heavily against you being able to get it fixed by 2000.

What Should I Do?

     My guess is that you're not running a mainframe using COBOL so the first step is to check all of your computers for compliance. Then, especially if you are a business, contact the manufacturers of all of your software and hardware peripherals to see if they are up to snuff. If you do any direct contact between other businesses or other computers, contact the people in charge over there and see if they are up to snuff. When you can, get it in writing. You don't know what the fall out of someone's computer will be. Yes, it may continue to operate, but with bad data. I believe there will be a lot of "who is at fault for my loss" law suits out there, come mid-2000.

     Please don't think I'm making this up either. I am one of three people at my university who are in charge of getting the campus fully up to Year 2000 compliance. What I just told you is what we're doing in every department across campus. We are actually contacting a coffee pot manufacturer to see if they're up to date. Take no chances -- check everything that plugs into the wall.

What If I Am Non-Compliant?

     If at all possible, replace it. Patches and fixes are nice, but if there is a bigger and better and newer, more compliant version out there, get it. Take it as a business tax deduction. I don't think anyone will question your reasoning. In fact, I have heard talk of a Year 2000 tax break for businesses who need to upgrade.
     If that isn't possible, then contact the manufacturer and ask how they intend to fix the problem. Hopefully you won't be left to your wits. If you are, I would suggest the next place you go is to a local college or university to ask where you can find a coder to repair the problem. At this point, you may just have to go with the new system.

     It's not the newer stuff that's going to cause the problems. It's the older machines. I know a few people that are doing business directly with the government, and they are quite nervous.

     Whatever you do, you should have your system up and testing six months before the new year. If at all possible, have it up and running by the start of 1999. One of the people I spoke with said we'll get a short preview of what is to come in 2000 when the clock ticks to 1999. He called it a "fence post" test. Many programs are one year off in their billing or calculating and such. Fiscal years that start on January 1st might have problems. Interest that is compounded yearly might just burp. Magazine subscriptions that go past 2000 might be erased. Who knows? Just have your system up as soon as possible. Testability is the key word here.

What Do You Think Will Happen?

     If you have ever seen me place a bet in Las Vegas, you'll know not to bet the farm on my predictions. I'd like to think that it's going to be nothing except a few brush fires here and there. But I also think that we're missing something. What is it I don't know, but it will certainly rear its head on January 1st, 2000. The people I spoke with had thoughts ranging from doomsday to no big deal. I think the answer will be somewhere in the middle.

     I guess what scares me most is what people will do that has nothing to do with computers. How many people will withdraw their money from the bank, from stock, from IRAs, from money markets, from bonds, from mutual funds because they have fears that it'll all disappear after the 1st? Who knows? That's the thing that scares me the most.

     But, as a good friend said, "I just wouldn't be on the top floor of a building at midnight." I assume he was talking about the elevators stopping. So I asked him, "What effect will the Year 2000 bug have on the steps?"




[What's Wrong With Our Computers?]
[The Actual Problem -- In Detail]
[What Is Going To Happen?]
[Am I Compliant?]
[What About The Internet?]
[Can It Be Fixed?]
[What Should I Do?]
[What If I Am Non-Compliant?]
[What Do You Think Will Happen?]

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