A millennium meltdown? (or not as the case may be)

Planes grounded, schools closed, credit cards refused - all because computers don't know what a century is. Is it really going to happen?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
It Is the first month of the new millennium. The celebrations that saw in the year 2000 have been overtaken by a spreading technological disaster, as the country's computer networks are undermined by the "millennium bug". In the depths of winter power cuts and blackouts increase as the electricity supplies are reduced. Schools are closed, hospitals are operating emergency cover only. Transport is chaotic: ports are shut; planes are grounded; the underground and rail networks are crippled; malfunctioning traffic lights have created gridlock on the roads. Telephones, both conventional and cellular, work only intermittently.

As the effects of the technological meltdown grow, manufacturing companies shut down production lines. Some 40,000 businesses are faced with bankruptcy, putting six million jobs at risk. The financial system is close to collapse: the stock market is suspended and banks are closed; cash dispensers no longer function; credit cards are refused; mortgage and loan accounts are frozen.

You might want to think of this as the millennial apocalypse scenario. Predictions of widespread technological collapse at the turn of the century have come from many quarters, the most precise from a study of corporate and government awareness of the "year 2000 problem" by a consultancy called Corporation 2000. Their predictions are remarkably detailed: that power supplies will shrink to "50 per cent availability" in January 2000; that the stock market will be shut from 20 December 1999 to 24 January 2000, and banks from 1 December 1999 to 24 January 2000; that schools will be closed from Christmas until 28 January 2000 ... and so on. And all because - it is believed - the world's computers will be thrown into turmoil by a simple change of date. This is all very frightening, of course - as it is certainly intended to be. But is any of it really likely?

The corporations and services identified by Corporation 2000 certainly don't think so. Both London Transport and Railtrack have said they expect to be "year 2000 compliant" by the millennium. A spokesman for Associated British Ports says simply: "It's not true," adding that ABP was considering taking legal action against Corporation 2000. British Telecom describes the report's conclusions as "ridiculous". A BT spokesman, David Orr, says the company's computers will be ready for the millennium by the end of next year.

At London Electricity, a spokeswoman notes that "it is strange that Corporation 2000 is making claims about us and our business when they have spoken to no one here". London Electricity, she adds, "is confident there's not going to be a problem - and certainly not to the extent suggested in this report".

Corporation 2000, despite its portentous name, is just over a year old. Specialists in addressing the technological problems likely to be caused by the turn of the new millennium, the consultancy was founded by Martyn Emery, a 36-year-old former IBM employee, whose ambition, he has said, is to become a "millenniumaire" - which means he intends to become very rich indeed from the millennium bug. The company bills itself as a "virtual consultancy"; according to Michael Moss, a Corporation 2000 director, this means that it sub-contracts the services of specialists working from their homes.

Moss disputes the readiness of the service and supply industries to cope with the year 2000 problem. "No one is going to say they don't have a plan for the year 2000," he argues. "You have to be realistic. We're pretty much the first people to have made these sorts of predictions, and we stand by them. We have been brutally honest."

The Corporation's forecast of post-2000 apocalypse, an industry analyst concedes, are "possible - though not necessarily probable". "I would say it was a useful piece of attention-getting information," adds Karl Feilder, the chief executive of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), another company that specialises in year 2000 issues. "Emery's made a number of assumptions, but I would say he's about right. The report will never be shown to be accurate or inaccurate. If it's accurate, no one will care; if it's inaccurate, he'll say it's because I warned you about it."

Which is why, of course, all such predictions should be treated cautiously. The millennium bug has spawned a small industry of computer consultants and businesses that have an interest in keeping millennial hysteria high. "There are three groups involved in this," says Ian Mitchell, the features editor of Computer Weekly. "There are the users, who are very worried about it; there are the consultants, who are creating a clamour and are making some cash out of it; and there are the software and hardware suppliers, who are keeping very quiet about it."

Bill Gates, whose company is a rather large supplier of software, has not been quiet about it. He has blamed "a consulting industry that's grown up to exaggerate the nature of the problem" for spreading panic. The founder of industry giant Microsoft, Gates is known not to consider the year 2000 problem to be much of a problem at all. "You don't compare dates in that many places in a program," he argues. "It's in very few places. And there are some clever ways to get around it."

GMT's Feilder takes the opposite view. "He is wrong," he says of Gates. "I can prove that he is wrong. I do not know why he would make a wrong statement, but he is wrong." A bumptious propagandist for the millennial apocalyse, Feilder argues that "empirical" evidence proves that computers "definitely go wrong after 31 December 1999. The only way to find out about these things is to test them."

Feilder is part of that consulting industry that Gates indicts for exaggerating the problem. "I can't deny that," he says, "but there's a saving grace. I don't need the money and I don't need the hassle. I'm doing this because I'm very, very concerned."

It is claimed those effects are likely to cost the UK economy pounds 30bn (though Michael Moss of Corporation 2000 calls that "a bit of an underestimate".) However, like everything else to do with the year 2000 problem, this estimate is based on little concrete evidence. "There are so many assumptions in these figures that they are little more than informed guesswork," Feilder says.

It may be, of course, that the millennial apocalypse is indeed a disaster waiting to happen. It may be that the real cost of upgrading Britain's computer systems will be much higher than the pounds 30bn some estimate.

There's only one thing we can be sure of. The clock is ticking...