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Tick Tock - The Year 2000 Problem
Feature Story - by Kathryn Crawford

The sky won't fall when the world's clocks sweep us into the next century. Airplanes probably won't crash to the ground. Elevators aren't likely to plummet through skyscrapers. The world economy probably won't screech to a halt.

That's what Jason Matusow, program manager for Microsoft's Year 2000 solutions, assures worried customers who are concerned about all the doom and gloom of the millenium predictions.

On the other hand, the arrival of the year 2000 poses a monumental problem. Every computer that uses dates in some way - from nuclear power plant control rooms, to emergency rooms, to VCRs, PCs and air conditioning units - may be affected. The financial impact is staggering.

"The Year 2000 problem is a bigger deal than anyone wants to think about," Matusow said during a recent interview on Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, WA. "It's human nature: If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

600 Days, and Counting
Jason Matusow In Matusow's small office, a bulletin board marks off the days until January 1, 2000. As of mid-April, there were fewer than 630 days left.

"Technically, it's a very simple problem to deal with," Matusow said. It is just a matter of finding every date in every piece of code in every computer, and fixing it.

But the enormity of the problem lies in the simple fact that there is a lot of code out there to search through. "Only 5 percent of the world's code has dates in it, but that small piece affects 85 percent to 95 percent of the rest of the code out there," Matusow said.

And it's an equal opportunity problem, affecting mainframe, Unix, and personal computing environments.

"It just depends on how dates are handled and whether you have created a customized application that is not compliant," Matusow said. "It may not be as serious a concern for an individual using a computer at home as it is for an enterprise with thousands of workstations."

So What's Microsoft Doing About It?
As the countdown continues, Microsoft is scrambling to provide concerned customers with information, third-party tools, and free, downloadable patches to bring Microsoft products into compliance.

At the Microsoft Year 2000 Resource Center at http://www.microsoft.com/year2000/, which launched this week, Microsoft's core products are listed and categorized depending on how seriously the year 2000 will affect the application. Those categories range from fully compliant, to compliant with minor issues, to not compliant. Products that are still in testing or that will not be tested are also listed.

"The best thing we can deliver in the short term is solid, useful information," Matusow said.

Plunging Elevators
Year 2000 scenarios can be nightmarish. A business's mission-critical accounting system may be wiped out. A doctor may not be able to retrieve accurate information from a patient's pacemaker. The air traffic control system may be affected.

That's why businesses and organizations all over the world must start addressing the problem, Matusow said. Computer systems need to be analyzed and tested, fixed or retired. All of which takes a great deal of time, money, and expertise.

And it's a problem the world is woefully slow in addressing, Matusow said. Large enterprises will spend upwards of $100 million fixing the Year 2000 problem; smaller organizations will spend between $25 million and $35 million.

It's already too late to fix every piece of code out there, according to experts. It's now a question of triage: can the system potentially threaten human life or cause environmental damage? Will the company go bankrupt if the system ceases to function? Will it disrupt major business processes, or will it only cause minor inconveniences?

The Problem in a Nutshell
The Year 2000 issue poses three significant problems for computer systems.
  • In most computer code that uses dates, the century is abbreviated to two digits. For example, 1998 is shortened to 98. At the turn of the next century, any calculations built on these dates will not return accurate results.

    For example, say you buy a new refrigerator in 1999 with a credit card. The bank will run into problems in 2000 when it tries to calculate the interest owed and subtracts the transaction date (99) from the current date (00). The computer is going to come up with the number -99.

  • An added complexity to the problem is that the year 2000 is a leap year. In fact, it is a special leap year that occurs only once every 400 years. Many systems and applications were designed without taking the leap year into account and do not recognize the date February 29, 2000.

    As a result, all subsequent dates will be incorrect. "You end up with everything broken," Matusow said.

  • The third problem is a date-related issue, although not specifically a Year 2000 problem. Back when memory was more expensive, dates were often used as a programmatic function in order to save memory and screen space.

    The date 9/9/99 was a common favorite. Typing 9/9/99 in the date field of a form, for example, would trigger a programmatic function of some kind. The problem is that, in this example, the application would probably break on September 9, 1999 (9/9/99) but would be fine the next day (9/10/99).

    Many organizations still use old date codes and are using the Year 2000 process to find and remove these codes.
The good news?

In all likelihood, at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, computerized elevators will determine they haven't been maintained in 99 years and will slowly sink to the basement. The scenario of elevators plunging to the ground probably won't happen.
© 1998 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Terms of Use. Last Updated: May 4, 1998