Don't just offer advice, Mr Cruickshank, do something useful

William Hartston offers a practical way to squash the millennium bug
THERE are two theories about the millennium bug: Theory One - the Doomsday Scenario - says that when computers click over to the year 2000 the whole of the western economy will collapse, planes will crash and lights will go out all over Europe, but none of that will matter because we'll all be killed by the stray nuclear missiles launched automatically from ex-Soviet millennium-non-compliant computers.

Theory Two, however, says that all these scare stories are just part of the Millennium Scam - a get-rich-quick conspiracy of lawyers and computer consultants charging exorbitant fees to tell companies there's nothing to worry about. (So far, the lawyers are doing best: more money has been invested in assessing the legal implications of millennial melt- down than in tackling the problem itself.)

Action 2000, the bug- busting arm of the Department of Trade and Industry, run by Don Cruickshank, appears to take an optimistic version of the Doomsday view: a huge disaster threatens, but it's not too late to do something about it. But are they doing the right things? Efforts have been concentrated in two principal directions: alerting the nation's businesses to test their systems in good time; and the training of an army of 20,000 technicians to return to their offices and squash bugs.

For large businesses, with purpose-built computer systems, such an individual approach is essential, yet in a country of four million small businesses the present mood of controlled panic is creating unnecessary work and confusion.

It's the single-PC companies who are being let down by our computer-welfare state. Every company that keeps its accounts on a standard off-the-peg spreadsheet, running on a popular computer make, has to find out for itself whether the two are millennium-compatible. And if they are not, whether this will create significant problems.

By now, sufficient tests have surely been done to collate enough information on a floppy disk to give most small businesses a simple method of diagnosing the areas in which they might face problems. Most of the hard work has already been done, yet every firm is having to repeat it. The avoidance of such repetitive work is exactly what computer technology does best.

If Action 2000 were to send every VAT-registered business such a diagnostic floppy disk, it could save the nation billions. Estimates of the effect of the millennium bug on the British economy range from an economic armageddon- sized loss of 29 per cent of GDP, to a best-case scenario of 1 per cent of businesses going bust. That's 40,000 firms and around half a million added to the unemployment figures.

Yet the remit of Action 2000 from the DTI prevents it from doing anything so useful. It is there to train and inform, to aid the every-man-for- himself culture, rather than producing something of general use. Yet every business needs all the help it can get - not only to test its own systems, but to be reassured that suppliers and clients are not going to let it down.

Of the pounds 97m package announced last month to tackle the millennium bug, a large proportion will be eaten up in the cost of performing repetitive diagnostic tasks. One research project and four million floppy disks would save a lot of money.

And even those costs could be cut drastically were the British and US governments to pass legislation making it mandatory for Microsoft and other leading software companies to come clean on which of their programs are going to foul up on 1 January 2000.

The way things are going, both our initial theories may be proved right: the computer consultants will become millennium millionaires, then they will be killed off with the rest of us by the failure of some vital system that went unchecked while they were coining their fortunes.