I was touched when my microwave wished me a Happy New Year

Click to follow
The Independent Online

So Y2K has arrived, and despite the apocalyptic predictions of the technology gurus, it appears the world has not experienced any major computer failures. However, although most companies would deny it, I spotted at least a few Y2K problems that were symptomatic of the chaos that must have been going on behind the scenes.

So Y2K has arrived, and despite the apocalyptic predictions of the technology gurus, it appears the world has not experienced any major computer failures. However, although most companies would deny it, I spotted at least a few Y2K problems that were symptomatic of the chaos that must have been going on behind the scenes.

I was travelling on 1 and 2 January (the unfortunate effect of having my immediate family spread over three countries), and couldn't fail to notice that at both Heathrow and Gatwick, many of the departure and arrival screens were out of use, and the few that did work showed some gobbledegook letters mixed with 0s and 1s. As it was causing quite a bit of confusion for travellers, I would suspect that somebody, somewhere, was having problems with the data feeds from the arrival and departure databases. When asked, the airport staff said something about maintenance work and avoided eye contact. I would be very surprised if anybody in an IT department would have been foolish enough to do service work over those two crucial days. Most likely there was some frantic fixing being done behind the scenes and the airport authorities didn't want to create panic by telling the customers what was really going on.

Also, trying to do last-minute gift buying, I used the airport shops. It was quite a surprise to see that many of the retailers, including WH Smith and The Body Shop, used old-fashioned credit card slips to take my card details instead of the online connections. Coincidence? I think not. The subsequent explanation from the clearing banks was that there were temporary problems. That makes sense philosophically - the problem was caused by a time issue but not technically as those were exactly the kind of problems that had been anticipated, and therefore should have been tackled as part of the megabucks spending on Y2K fixes.

Clearly, whoever took the Y2K consultancy money from HSBC or NatWest should give it back right away, as it must have cost the retailers a considerable amount as a result of not being able to verify the credit cards online with those clearing banks. The banks had to minimise the problem as a matter of PR damage control, but it was a pretty bad show and I can just imagine the poor sods in their Y2K emergency rooms sweating it out till the early hours of 3 January to make their system accept the card clearance process.

A lot of companies simply shuffled the problems under the carpet, hoping nobody would notice, as it doesn't exactly inspire consumers' confidence to hear that their bank or building society had problems. We may never know the real scale of problems, as there will no doubt be a cover-up.

On the positive side, there were some nice quirks related to Y2K that made me smile. Maybe I am getting sentimental, but I was touched when my microwave woke up on the 1 January and wished me Happy New Year. A string of text with smiley face icons went zooming across the display panel that usually shows temperature and cooking time. A similar response came from my oven and food processor, both wishing me Happy Year 2000 although this time without the icons.

I have seen such things in software, where programmers working on a particularly tedious application add something called an "Easter egg" - a little funny message, or perhaps an entertaining action that would pop up at some point and make the user smile. However, I'd never seen it on hardware, as microwaves and ovens don't have much space on their tiny control panels to add much of anything clever. What's more, they had to pass through some gloomy quality controller in Taiwan or Korea, who would not see the funny side of an Easter egg. That has obviously changed now, as there is more software added to hardware such as ovens, and therefore more places to hide a quirky message. I am looking forward to more of that, as personal greetings from Hoovers or food processors would add to the quality of our daily interactions.

The use of smart communications in household hardware also opens an interesting set of applications that may reduce my need to remember things. For example, the messaging on the oven could be linked up to my family's birthdays and their favourite dishes.

At the moment, my work-related cognitive load is too much to leave space to remember those nice luxury things such as who likes what food or who is allergic to what products or who is vegetarian, so I stuff those facts into the pile of Post-its, which periodically get lost and I have to start all over again. If I could dictate the recipes to the oven and note who they are for, that would make the family gathering a lot more manageable. So perhaps Y2K Easter eggs will inspire someone to get smart about the hardware in our households and solve at least some of the problems of our increasingly hectic lives by offloading the low-level but important knowledge on home appliances.

I'm just glad technology can bring nice surprises to our lives, as well as apocalyptic, technophobia-inducing catastrophes. Here's hoping we see more human touches from the programming folk in the new millennium.

eva@never.com

Comments