Y2K - AFTER THE BALL WAS OVER
Before Y2K, disaster was confidently prophesied. Afterwards it would seem to have had less impact than was feared. Was this because we took the right precautions at the time and dealt with it promptly? Was it because we over-estimated the extent of the problem? Was it because the computer industry took advantage of gullible customers? Are we, in any case, out of the wood now? Some answers suggested.
I spent the New Year in a manner quite different to that which I had planned. I had taken my own advice and laid in the candles, the spare cash and balanced all the bank statements and bought extra cat food. In fact, if Sainsbury had difficulty re-stocking with cat food I stood ready to help them out. I then planned to join a large family party which by coincidence was close to an area targetted for Russian missiles, near to the previous sites for American air bases. I reasoned it was better not to survive an accident of that kind, and infinitely preferable to go surrounded by one's family.
As it turned out the flu struck hard, no doubt encouraged onwards by a dose of vaccine taken just before, and for the first time in years I was confined to bed groaning faintly and feeling desperately ill. I did indeed believe I was dying but not for the expected reason. On waking on January 1st I remember a distinct feeling of relief to find out we were all still here - perhaps it was the fever talking.
Various incidents were reported none of which could be directly proved to be Y2K related. Bookings for Eurostar to depart in February could not be taken during most of the month of December. The traffic lights at the Red Lion car park in Cambridge went from Red to Green to Amber at one second intervals for a whole afternoon. At least 8 computers, which I saw personally, were convinced that the date was actually the first of January 1980 (all were quickly convinced of the error of their thinking and have not since offended again). Someone sent out a press release with the date 1900. No rockets went off; no trains crashed. In fact, to quote from Albert and the Lion "no wrecks and nobody drownded - nothing to laff at, at all".
It is estimated now that the total expenditure on solving the problem in the UK came to £20 billion. To put that into perspective, we spend annually about £50 billion on the National Health Service. So we spent a lot of money and got it right? In Italy and France far smaller amounts were spent and yet disaster did not strike them as had been prophesied. So, perhaps we didn't need to spend all that money?
Several very good things happened in the run-up to Y2K - Microsoft got its act together and published a remarkably good free CD with all the updates for all their software with all the bug fixes known to man. This allowed us all to get everything upgraded to the latest release with very little effort. Even now this CD is still invaluable in sorting out software glitches in various PCs. It also included an Audit program which allows one to produce a report on all Microsoft products installed in a machine which is useful for evidential purposes and for checking licence records.
Another good thing was that the industry, for once, stopped promising the earth and failing to deliver and concentrated their minds on battening down all the hatches on the plague area systems that never worked properly. Now that sort of problem is behind us, future progress will not be distracted by constantly having to pump ship to stop the rising tide of floodwater in the bilges from sinking the ship.
The sellers of snake oil had a great day. 'Check your PC' kits which always reported that your PC was not compliant because the clock chip didnít have a century digit. None of them did and you didnít need it. This was good for PC sales since wholesale replacement was the order of the day. This year they may regret their zeal since the sales pulled forward from 2000 to 1999 will be one-offs which will impact 2000 sales figures.
The FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) merchants had a field day. It became imperative from the viewpoint of software vendors to install the latest version because "only this would actually guarantee Y2K compatibility". Then at the last minute out came the fixes for older products which made them Y2K compliant as a retro-fit - this was to avoid being sued for supplying defective goods - those who had bought the newer versions earlier were not supposed to complain.
Of course a lot of the money was mis-spent. Anyone who spent time checking coffee-machines, fax machines, pencil sharpeners and the like wasted their money. A problem was however reported by the NHS in autoclave sterilisers which was a bit of a surprise.
A lot of the money was spent on checking for problems that did not actually exist. The security services will tell you that checking that a building definitely does not contain bombs or robbers is difficult and expensive. Once you can see sinister figures slipping away down dark corridors it becomes very much easier to chase them and catch them. Problems that have missed the first check and come out now seem to be relatively easily dealt with as a part of normal maintenance. We also have to remember that dealing with chaos resulting from software upgrades is the bread and butter of maintenance programming and is dealt with as routine. So maybe we could have spent less and got away with it. I would not liked to have tried it.
So is it all over now? I strongly suspect not. Problems must continue to surface as quarter ends and year ends roll up. Further, all years keyed as two digit dates are now being interpreted by the windowing software as 20xx or 19xx according to the pre-set rules. One of the real difficulties of Y2K was the very many different versions of OLEAUT32.DLL which all dealt with this differently and the impossibility of ensuring that there was a standard version installed on all desk tops. We should soon find that there are a multiplicity of different 19xx dates and 20xx dates around, which we did not intend. These will all have to be expensively cleaned up. Not the end of the world but still expensive.