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

William Hartston offers a practical way to squash the millennium bug

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An Indian bookseller waits for customers at a roadside stall on World Book and Copyright Day in Mumbai  

Novel translation lets us know what is really happening in the world

Boyd Tonkin

Nature Studies: The decline and fall of the nightingale, poetry’s most famous bird

Michael McCarthy
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine