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Technology: Time ticks by for millennium bug tsar

One man, one day a week: is Don Cruickshank serious about getting British business to take action against the `Millennium Bug' that will affect computers after December 31 1999? Charles Arthur, Science Editor, discovered that he is - and that he expects things to get worse before they get better.

What should we expect from the run-up to 2000? Computer cowboys who will rip companies off while doing a shoddy job of reprogramming their systems, says Don Cruickshank, the man appointed by the Government to ginger business people into taking the problem seriously.

The trouble is, some businesses aren't yet aware of the problems they face. And computer cowboys are only the beginning.

"That's so certain, it's one of the first statements you can make. Prices [of skilled staff] will go up, which will attract - um - marginal players into the game. And the later you are, the bigger the problem you have. It's like having a leak and calling out an emergency plumber. You're completely in their hands." `

Then again, Mr Cruickshank's job as head of Action 2000 sounds, initially, like a wonderful sinecure. He will work on it for only one day a week. But surely he will carry the can if - or, more truthfully, when - things go wrong after the clocks ring out 31 December 1999. Perhaps the sinecure is a poisoned chalice?

"Ah, well," he says with a smile. "That's public life."

But Mr Cruickshank, presently head of the telecoms regulator Oftel, doesn't think that his post should be one requiring a Batphone and an underground cave with a high-speed car. He isn't going to solve problems: he's going to make businesses aware that they face them.

Not Batman, then, solving the troubles of computing's Gotham City? "Afraid not," he told The Independent, in one of his first interviews since becoming the UK's bug tsar. "There isn't going to be one of those."

Instead, Action 2000 will probably set up a Web site offering advice and "best practice" for approaching the problem. Not Batman, but the Batman Helpline.

The point about the Millennium Bug is that it is not only of interest to computer nerds, or PC owners, or people who work on computers. Because chips are so ubiquitous, any flaws will affect hundreds of citizens who thought they never touched a computer.

The problem arises because many chips and programs store the year as a two-digit number. After 1999, that number will for the first time decrease instead of increasing when the clock ticks over. The computer may decide either that the date is 1900, or that a serious error has occurred and that it should shut down.

Nobody knows what the result will be. Timelock safes might not open. Trains might sail past red signal lights. Automated hospital drips could shut down. Lifts could freeze. Supermarket fridges might cut off, leaving food to spoil over the New Year weekend (starting on Saturday, 1 January 2000).

In fact he thinks that many business people are adopting a deceptive approach to their 2000 efforts. "It puzzled me at first. They will admit things in private about the problems they're having which they absolutely won't in public. I think they're attempting to be like swans. Sailing serenely along on the surface, but underneath they're paddling like hell. There's a lot of that going on."

l The introduction of the European currency should be delayed because of massive computer problems due to bite at the millennium, a committee of MPs was told last night.

Robin Guenier, executive director of the Taskforce 2000 group set up to pre-empt the bug, said 40,000 medium-sized and large businesses had not yet even begun to address the problem. The majority of computers on sale now were likely to fail at midnight on 31 December 1999.

The computer industry had a "dreadful" record of missing deadlines, he said, with 80 per cent of projects ending late, he told the Commons science and technology committee.

"The single most evident reason for postponing the Euro is that the year 2,000 problem is happening at the same time. We are doing the largest IT job we have ever done and the second largest," he said.

While some sectors were way ahead - almost every City solicitors had a partner working on the legal implications, for example - others had barely recognised the enormity of the problem.

A recent survey had suggested that only 10 per cent of businesses had carried out an audit of their systems, 57 per cent planned to do nothing until 1999 - far too late - and while 80 per cent planned to do the necessary work in house less than half had the staff to do it.