Only a quarter of British managers are aware of the 'year 2000 problem'. Are we too late to stem millennium mayhem, asks Ian Grayson
It's easy to view the much-publicised year 2000 problem as something that only affects big business. Attention has focused on the massive task of overhauling the computer code running mainframe computers to ensure they continue to function after midnight on 31 December 1999.

Many people think the problem is confined to large corporate systems and will have little direct impact on them. They are wrong.

The problem, which occurs when computers cannot deal with dates after 31 December 1999, is one of the most far-reaching issues facing modern society. It will affect virtually every aspect of daily life.

"What we are talking about is a problem that, if it is not fixed, will take the company you are working for and put it out of business," says Peter de Jager, IT consultant and expert on the year 2000 problem. "So the first thing many people will notice is that they won't be getting a pay cheque."

It is impossible to predict all the difficulties the problem will create, but possible effects include malfunctioning power stations, shutdowns of communication systems, scrambled transport timetables and delayed salary and benefits payments.

Bleak predictions, but de Jager says many may come true if companies do not allocate sufficient resources to overcome the problem. But this does not seem to be happening.

Industry research undertaken last month by business services firm PA Consulting found that only 28 per cent of senior managers in UK companies were fully aware of the year 2000 problem and only 9 per cent of companies had completed an audit to establish the extent of the difficulties faced by their organisation. There is now no way that all affected systems can be fixed in time.

Even if companies are able to ensure their critical systems will continue to run, this will be at the expense of other, less important functions.

"If you have 20 computer applications, of which five are critical to your business and 15 are not, you are forced to concentrate on the five just to survive," says de Jager.

"The levels of customer service that we have come to expect from many organisations will decrease. People will notice a gradual degradation in the quality of response and service they receive. The company's competitive edge will be blunted."

Financial institutions are potentially the largest victims. Interest calculations for long-term loans and deposits, life assurance policies, superannuation funds and pension plans could all be affected. As far as many computers are concerned, a 25-year loan taken out in 1990 will not end in 2015 but rather have 75 years of interest added. All major banks are investing considerable sums to ensure their computer systems will continue to calculate in the new millennium.

In other areas, licences, credit cards and permits issued close to 2000 may run into problems. Personnel, medical and academic records stored electronically may give erroneous messages or be wiped from systems altogether. Hospitals that track patients by birth dates using two digits may think people born in 2000 were born before their parents.

Government departments, too, face huge problems. It is estimated the British government will need to invest around pounds 1bn just to keep critical systems running.

Estimates of the total cost of solving the year 2000 problem vary widely, with international research company Gartner putting it as high as $600bn. They calculate the cost of revising a typical computer program at between $450 and $600, based on a cost calculation of between 80 cents and $1 per line of code.

While some automated tools have been devised to assist programmers in their quest for elusive two-figure year references hidden in computer code, none are completely fool-proof. Manual checking will constitute a significant proportion of any project.

To encourage companies to address the problem, the Government established Taskforce 2000, an organisation charged with the responsibility of raising awareness in both private and public sectors.

"I don't subscribe to the drama scenario of planes falling out of the sky, power not being generated and televisions not working on 1 January 2000," says Robin Guenier, head of Taskforce 2000. "But there is a woefully inadequate amount of work being done on this problem. There is a gradually increasing level of awareness, but not enough of this awareness is translating into action."

Taskforce 2000, which has been operating under tight funding restrictions, has been contacting senior executives in companies throughout the UK with a simple message: start fixing your computer systems before it's too late. According to Guenier, companies should aim to have their systems 2000- compliant by the end of 1998, because that's when the problems are really going to start.

"For someone who has not started yet, 18 months is not long enough," he says. "It is now impossible for a major system to be fixed if the job has not already started. "This is much more than just an IT subject. The technical part is minor compared with the consequences of getting it wrong."

The problems are not limited to large computer systems. Personal computers purchased before the mid-Nineties also may have difficulties recognising post-1999 dates.

To rub salt into the wound, some software is unable to cope with the fact that, although the millennium is divisible by 100, it can also be divided by 400 and is therefore a leap year.

However, a more worrying problem is determining how the millions of devices that contain embedded controller chips will behave. Such devices range from microwave ovens and televisions to cars, security systems and traffic lights. No one is sure how many such devices will be affected and, if they are, how they will act.

"There is a massive problem with anything that has an imbedded logic chip that carries a date reference," says Guenier. "Control and monitoring systems that exist in all sorts of places, such as security and maintenance systems, are all potential problems."

Major chip manufacturers are more positive. Both Motorola and Intel say the majority of microcontrollers in use do not need date information to function. Consumer electronics companies, too, are seemingly relaxed about the issue.

"The year 2000 problem is not a major issue for Sony," says Simon Goodman, PR manager at the electronics giant. "Video recorders are the only products that we think may have a problem. However, for the past five years, every Sony video recorder on the market has been programmed to deal with the year 2000."

De Jager is more cautious. "I have no doubt that some devices will stop functioning, but no one really knows how many or which ones," he says. "For many situations it is simply going to be a matter of wait and see."

"The whole thing is rather like clearing out the attic," says Guenier. "You intend to get around to it but you don't. It's much easier to go to the pub and talk about it instead. The trouble is that many people are still down at the pub on this one".

How millennium-friendly is your PC?

Most home PC users should wake up on 1 January 2000 to find their machines functioning normally, according to major vendors. The problem that is proving so costly to fix in the corporate world should affect only PCs bought before the mid-Nineties. Most machines built since then have been designed to recognise the new century.

"The life span of a PC is usually around five years," says Phyllis Brady, product marketing manager at the PC-maker Dell, "so the year 2000 won't be an issue for most people. However, some people with older systems will need to check."

The problems that older systems will encounter stem back to their beginnings in the early Eighties and the design of their BIOS chip. The BIOS chip controls certain start-up and basic operating functions of a PC, such as its keyboard, screen, and date and time settings. In many early PCs, this chip was hard-wired to regard 4 January 1980 - the year PCs were first produced - as the beginning of time. So when the year turns to 00, such a machine will revert to 1980, just as it has been programmed to do.

In some machines, this BIOS setting can be changed by upgrading the machine's software. "For some earlier PCs, we have arranged an easy way for the BIOS to be upgraded by downloading software from our bulletin-board service," says Brady. "It's then simply a matter of loading the disk."

However for older systems, such as those based on 286, 386 and early 486 processors, the news is not so good. Because the BIOS is embedded in a chip, it can't be upgraded by changing software. The chip has to be physically changed. "Unfortunately, there won't be a fix available for these machines," says Brady.

Users of Apple Macintosh computers have nothing to worry about. The utilities that handle date and time introduced with the very first Macintosh used a 32-bit value, thereby allowing full four-digit years to be stored.

The problem

It seems astounding that something so basic can cause so many problems. Yet a simple convention used by computer programmers since the invention of the microchip has created a problem that is costing billions of pounds to fix. The problem stems from the fact that most computers store years as two-digit numbers rather than four - 1997 is stored as "97", for example. This system has worked without a hitch until now, as the first two digits of the year have remained constant.

However, once the clock ticks to one minute past midnight on 31 December 1999 the situation changes. Computers have no way of distinguishing between 2000 and 1900, as both end in "00". Unless told otherwise, computers around the globe will behave as though their clocks have been turned back 100 years.The implications are huge for any programs that rely on dates to function.

Ironically, this costly problem exists because of an original desire to save money. When programmers began writing code for mainframe computers back in the Sixties and Seventies, storage space was expensive. Any techniques they could use to reduce the amount of information needing to be stored on disk were seen as a good thing.

At that time, the millennium seemed a long way off and many programmers felt that systems they were designing would be superseded well before 2000. So it became the norm to represent years with their final two digits.

Unfortunately, those programmers were wrong. Rather than throwing out their legacy computer systems during the following 30 years, companies and organisations tended to upgrade and improve on what they already had. The end result is that millions of lines of program code written in the Sixties and Seventies are still running in computer installations around the world.

The problem also affects mid-range machines and personal computers. Two-digit year representations can be found in micro code, operating systems, software compilers, applications, queries, procedures, screens and databases.

As more companies realise the problems they face, finding qualified consultants with the knowledge required to fix systems is becoming increasingly difficult. Most young computer programmers have little knowledge of the older computer languages, such as COBOL. It is this type of software that requires the most attention.

Companies' use of data networks such as the Internet also poses difficulties. If, say, a year 2000-compliant machine attempts to communicate with a non-compliant machine via such a network, problems could still occur.

In many cases, it will simply be a matter of waiting to see the extent of the problem when the millennium parties are over and people head back to work in January 2000.