Network: Time to face up to a pest

After all the publicity, the millennium bug is just hours away. But who will it sting? Experts say we have little to fear, but fear itself. By Stephen Pritchard

FOR A small piece of computer code, the millennium bug has been far from publicity shy. It has entered into the popular consciousness with all the paraphernalia of a pop star - T-shirts, posters, mugs and fridge magnets. The bug is on the radio and on TV and, of course, all over the Web.

It's big moment is now less than four days away. The first system failures will take place in New Zealand and Australia. There will be failures, but the bug's debut on the world stage will be far less dramatic than early publicity suggested.

The millennium bug is a straightforward computing problem. In fact, it is something of a misnomer: the bug is caused by the century ending, not the new millennium.

To save memory, old computer systems stored dates as two digits, so 1999 is just "99" in computerspeak. Computers think logically, so in a system with two-digit dates, 2000 becomes "00", which, numerically, comes before "99". The human brain is more sophisticated, so we can make the assumption that "00" means 2000, not 1900. Not so the computer.

Curing the bug on computers is largely a case of changing systems so as to use full, four-digit dates or, when that cannot be done, writing software that mimics the human mind and assumes that "99" is followed by "00", then "01".

The problem is the size of the systems at risk and the vast number of places where dates matter. Old, centralised computer systems with software written in the Seventies and early Eighties are the most problematic, as documentation is often out of date and the people who built the systems have often moved on or have retired.

Strangely though, the bug is, by and large, an IT success story. Barring an enormous oversight by almost the entire IT industry, the computer-driven world will not end on Millennium morning. The consensus among software experts is that we will see minor inconveniences in the next few months.

Civilisation as we know it will not grind to a halt.

Action 2000, the Government's official bug-watcher, is confident that all the UK's essential services have reached "blue" status, which means there will be no material disruption. "This covers everything from electricity, water and fuel down to the criminal justice system," says Tony Stock, director of operations at Action 2000.

"We are very pleased with the progress that has been made over the past two years." The Internet, too, should function properly. "The Net is an extremely resilient system," Mr Stock points out.

Action 2000's assessment of essential services includes the supermarkets, banks and telecommunications companies, so we should be able to buy food, withdraw cash and make phone calls in January with little or no disruption.

Chris Finch, UK country manager at the IT consultancy Merant-Microfocus, says: "I would be astonished if the lights go out. I do think systems will fail, but the failures will be invisible to the majority of the population. They will merely be minor inconveniences as the weeks go on."

Official figures show that larger businesses are on top of the problem. Disruption to FTSE-100 companies should be minor, so jobs and investments will be safe.

Companies are most at risk if they depend heavily on foreign markets and suppliers: Russia is one worry. UK businesses have contingency plans to cope. Over the past 18 months, economic commentators suggested that the millennium bug might trigger a global recession. That now seems unlikely.

If anything, economic activity should pick up in the new year as companies release the brakes on new developments which they had put on hold because of the bug. Several large financial-services companies, for example, plan to launch Internet- based products in 2000: the need to deploy staff on bug duties was one reason for not rolling out these this year.

Smaller firms face a trickier time. Modern PCs and software should be compliant, but older systems may not be. Software written for Windows 3.1 or DOS may well be vulnerable - upgrading is the easiest solution. Firms should pay attention to bespoke or customised software. The good news is that the problem can be fixed even after 1 January, although there is a risk of losing data.

Firms with networks should check that any servers and routers are Y2K- ready. Desktop PCs built after 1997 should be bug-free, and Macs are not affected. The retailer PC World says most of the computers it has sold since 1995 are compliant. Check for British Standard DISC PD2000-1 on the machine or in its paperwork.

"It is not too late to solve the problem," says Aled Miles, UK managing director of Symantec, a utility and anti-virus software publisher. "If you have an old PC you are at risk, so check the manufacturer's website. The issue of data is perhaps more serious, so take an hour or so to check it. It doesn't have to take a lot of time or cost a lot of money." Backing up crucial data on disk or paper is a sensible precaution.

The greatest threat now, some experts believe, is public over-reaction. There will be problems, but there is a technical solution for almost all of them, even if it means going back to paper records. "Our greatest concern has less to do with the bug than with human behaviour," Mr Stock says. "All the good work could be unravelled if people start to panic. There could still be short-term shortages - for example, pressure on the banking system."

Action 2000's advice is to stay calm. Go out and enjoy the festivities, but spare a thought and perhaps raise a glass for the thousands of IT specialists at their desks at midnight, just in case.

Action 2000:

www.bug2000.co.uk

Government millennium office: www.millennium-centre.gov.uk

Symantec: www.symantec.co.uk

PC World millennium bug helpline: 0870 9012000

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin