Europe's Date with Disaster
Millennium bug may cause chaos
by Nicholas Moss
The European, 9 - 15 May 1996, p. 24

When Europe wakes up on New Year's Day in the year 2000 it will be suffering from a massive headache. But it will take more than a couple of painkillers to resolve the impact of the approaching millennium on the continent's computer systems.

As clocks strike midnight on New Year's Eve 1999, computers around the world could go into spasm, causing disaster in transport, communications and commerce. Financial service industries are particularly at risk.

The origin of the problem is a space-saving measure used by programmers to indicate the year on early computer systems.

They substituted two digits for four, as a result of which the computer assumes that all dates related to the 20th century. So, for example, 1996 is denoted as 96. The problem is that 2000 will appear as 00, which will be interpreted as the start of the 20th century rather than the 21st.

A survey conducted by the UK's Department of Trade and Industry, the first by a European government, estimated that companies will each suffer average lost opportunity costs in excess of 10 million ($15m) because of the millennium bug.

"Incorrect date processing will be catastrophic for business unable to process orders, despatch invoices, calculate payments, and process transactions," said the report. "The millennium problem has the potential to disrupt whole economies ... and put organisations out of business," it added.

A survey by Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands points to a minimum cost of $200 million to insulate all Dutch businesses from the "millennium effect".

The cure is highly labour intensive, with analysts sifting line by line through companies' computer programmes.

Failure to amend systems could lead to goods being delivered at the wrong time and records being turned to gibberish. Analysts warn that time is running out. There may not be enough programmers to carry out audits before the year 2000.


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