I'd like to offer a small touch of optimism to counter some of the recent hype about Y2K and what you should do to prepare for it. I think we'll be OK. Sure, a few computer programs will crash - so what else is new? Didn't we cope quite well when they crashed yesterday, and last week, and the week before that, and ...?
I have spent the last twenty years learning about, using, programming and examining computers and software. Sadly, the Y2K problem is only one of many examples of sloppy programming, short-sighted design, and poor documentation. In fact, the “Y2K problem” has expanded to cover more than just the error of using two digits for the year. We have found all kinds of other date problems, including miscalculating leap years (the year 2000 IS a leap year, although some programs think it isn't), and running out of numbers for some internal date calculations at the end of 2038. In my experience, it is rare to find any software that works properly all the time.
However, the good news is: people are smart and adaptable! We deal with computer problems all the time and it's not a big disaster. Our older computers may soon report a date of 01/01/00, but after chuckling over its stupidity, most of us will figure out it really means the year is 2000 and we'll carry on with what we were doing.
A few programs may stop working altogether. If they do, I hope you will complain loudly and forcibly to the manufacturer. That brings me to my next point: we have accepted poor quality software for too long. We have had to become good at dealing with software and computer problems because the manufacturers have become too good at selling us their shoddy workmanship. Just read the disclaimer on the inside wrapping of a software disk sometime. Would you accept a “warranty” like that for a toaster? “IN NO EVENT SHALL THE MANUFACTURER BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES, INCLUDING INCIDENTAL OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES ARISING OUT OF YOUR USE OR INABILITY TO USE THIS TOASTER, EVEN IF THE MANUFACTURER HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.” I think not! So why do we accept it for software? It's time we, as consumers, insisted that software lived up to the claims on the front of the package, without the need for these blanket disclaimers and for user-pay help lines.
So if software is so poor in quality, shouldn't we prepare for a Y2K disaster? In my opinion, we will not have a Y2K disaster. As I've said, we may notice a few additional computer problems, but we are quite capable of handling them just as we handle the other day-to-day bugs. One positive aspect of the Y2K hype is that it has forced our government, utilities and financial agencies to do a thorough check of their computers and software.
In the course of this checking, they have quietly found and fixed a lot of little problems they didn't know about before, or hadn't had the time or money to fix until now. So the Y2K assessments have probably resulted in a more reliable set of systems than we've had before.
If you're still feeling nervous, you could certainly take this opportunity to take some precautions you should have taken anyway. If you own a computer, you know you should make backup copies of any data that is important to you, and store those copies away from the computer. You also know you should be checking for viruses on a regular basis. For all of us here in Ottawa, there are sensible precautions we should all take in preparation for winter weather. Think back to the ice storm of 1998 and make sure you're ready for that kind of natural disaster happening again.
Flashlights, battery-powered radios, extra batteries, a supply of food that doesn't need cooking or refrigeration are always good things to have on hand. But please don't create a fire hazard by stockpiling fuel or by using unsafe heaters.
So let's all celebrate the New Year with optimism and hope. And let's all make a New Millennium resolution to write our dates in the proper, international standard form: 2000-01-01. Year, month, day (biggest units first) with all four digits for the year. If we'd been doing that all along, this Y2K business might never have happened.
Richard P. Taylor
Software Quality Consultant
RPTaylor@ncf.ca or RPTaylor@acm.org