By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Electrical supply is a cause of particular concern because of the complex arrangements for automatically switching loads; as has happened at times in the past for other reasons, seemingly insignificant local failures may bring about cascades of blackouts over large areas. The recent nationwide loss of pager service because of a broken satellite-stabilizing system, while unrelated to Y2K, serves as a prototype of the potential of remote electronic devices to disrupt vast segments of everyday life.
The great problem with Y2K is to figure out in advance how messy it will really be, and when the mess will start. While some computer professionals insist that there is nothing to worry about, others consider a major shakeout of U.S. corporations inevitable. Thirty-eight percent of information-technology professionals responding to a Gartner Group survey said that they intended to convert their investments to cash before the millennium; how many will actually do so, and when, is a question that should fascinate stockbrokers. But in the apparent absence of any consensus, whom should one believe?
On the data processing side, the troubles have already begun, with instances of point-of-purchase terminals balking at 00-dated credit cards; consumers or employees receiving two bills or two checks, or having services cut off for incorrectly alleged non-payment; and taxpayers being dunned for already-paid amounts. Companies are in no hurry to admit to their Y2K-related blunders, but isolated reports of trouble do surface. A Kraft warehouse, for instance, destroyed several million dollars worth of food when a computer decided that since it was to be sold before 1900, it was evidently out of date. A similar event occurred in England several years earlier.
It's evident that if nothing whatever were done to squash the Millennium Bug, the consequences would be costly. If this were not true, companies and governments would not be spending huge sums on fixes. But although a great deal is now being done, many programmers doing Y2K work agree that remediation efforts are coming too late, and that at this point making contingency plans is as important as trying to fix the date problem.
On the embedded-systems side, prognostication is even harder. Scattered reports from industrial plants testing their control systems suggest that the problems are real, and that their consequences could be costly or even in some cases disastrous on the scale of the Bhopal chemical release. But whereas with data processing some effects of the century rollover have already been seen, more are going to be, and most can be anticipated, many embedded-system problems will not even be identified until after the date rolls over. Then they may come in battalions.
But what then? Will jittery and overextended stock markets panic? Will lights go out, production lines halt and phones click dead as a tidal wave of failures races around the world, starting at the International Date Line? Or will human ingenuity and stopgap measures tide us over while, in the ensuing months, the strong happily devour the weak?
No one seems to know. That's what will make the times so interesting.
Research assistance for this article was provided by Ben McKean.