9/9/99 panic offers a hint of what's to come

You want to hear ridiculous? A few weeks ago, Computerworld's offices were crowded with TV news crews interviewing various reporters and editors about the date.

It was September 9, remember, and the string 9/9/99 was supposed to set off some chain of catastrophes as computers around the world recognised it as an ancient process-shutdown code that mainframers used to use.

The most significant result of the date string - except to put a few more Computerworlders on TV trying to calm the masses - was massive celebration in Thailand, where nine is a lucky number. The four nines in the date string set off a riot of weddings, business openings and requests for Caesarean sections by pregnant women who wanted their children born on a lucky day.

One more potential date disaster safely passed, eh?

All indications are that corporate America has been hard at work on the Y2K problem since at least 1995. (Hard at work in this case means "aware and worried" from 1995 to mid-1997, then "frantically busy at emergency remediation" from then on.)Most of that work has gone into making sure that a huge potential disaster doesn't turn into a huge real disaster.

Now the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem is warning citizens and government agencies not to panic, thereby doing everything Congress can to ensure panic. And US Y2K czar John Koskinen has publicly worried that Americans are becoming complacent about Y2K and recommends that we keep three days of supplies on hand.

Don't panic? My ATM has a banner on it reassuring me that it's Y2K-compatible. Grocery stores, credit cards, even gas stations are displaying Y2K warnings and assurances.

Is this Y2K mania nuts? Potentially.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warns that if everyone who's vaguely worried about Y2K goes out and prepares for a disaster, we're going to have a nationwide rush that will eat up, then waste, both time and resources.

Ever seen the line that forms in a grocery store as people stock up on milk and bread to weather a big blizzard that's never quite the disaster we expected? Multiply that a hundredfold and apply it to states down South as well as in chillier climates.

What should you do?

Tell your friends, relatives - heck, anyone who will listen - that there are computer glitches all the time, and people live through them. Tell them 75 per cent of companies report they have already encountered Y2K problems and have found fixes or work-arounds.

Tell them the power goes out in some places every winter, and it has nothing to do with computers. Tell them to just call their bank or credit-card company to get inevitable errors corrected. It'll be inconvenient, but the companies they deal with know about Y2K, and most are ready to deal with problems.

Tell everyone to take a few reasonable precautions. Tell them to keep paper copies of their bank records; tell them to double-check their credit-card and phone bills to make sure there are no typos or miscalculations. ("Who was talking on the phone long distance to her boyfriend since 1900?")Tell everyone to just calm down. It'll be OK.

Then hire a few extra bodies to beef up your customer-support help desk. Year 2000 may not be a disaster, but it will certainly be a pain.

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