Taskforce 2000, the independent group set up to tell businesses about the problem, said firms had just a year-and-a-half before it would be too late. The cost to UK businesses alone has been estimated at pounds 15bn, with larger firms expected to spend tens of millions each.
The difficulties arise because most computer systems register only the last two digits of the year and simply assume the century number is a "19". When the millennium arrives many programmes will not be able to cope with the date change. At best, some computers would need re-programming, at worst whole networked systems could crash altogether.
In addition, simple computer chips in everyday appliances have the date encoded and may cease to function. Retailers were already finding their systems had rejected products with sell-by dates of more than 2000 because the computer assumed they were almost a 100-years old.
The Taskforce would be writing to all British utility companies to ask what action they had taken. "This is not an IT problem, it's more of a business management problem," said Ian Taylor, Minister of Science and Technology at the DTI. "The idea that it can be left to IT managers is seriously misguided," he continued.
Mr Taylor defended the Government's grant to the Taskforce of just pounds 170,000, which he described as "seedcorn money". The group, which has set itself a target of making firms aware of the problem by next spring, has to raise extra funds from the private sector.
Yet, so far, most company directors have little or no understanding of the problem. Robin Guenier, the Taskforce director, said: "It's just a question of leadership ... there is remarkably little time to do it. It is very, very urgent and very, very serious".Reuse content