Year 2000 poses ultimate computer challenge

July 06, 1997


Staff Writer

Jay Lauver believes he knows what will happen on Jan. 1, 2000.

Nothing. At least that's what he hopes.

For the past year Lauver, chief operations officer at Hagerstown Trust Co., has been overseeing the bank's efforts to ready its computer system for the year 2000, and avoid the miscalculations, bugs, crashes and other cyber calamities that could come with the new millenium.

Some equipment has to be upgraded. Some has to be tossed. He's not sure how much will be spent, but it won't be cheap, he said.


"It's time-consuming and resource-intensive," he said.

Throughout the Tri-State area, businesses, computer programmers and governments said they are preparing for the year 2000, and warning of the consequences of doing nothing.

"I think a lot of it is scare tactics, but the problem is there," said Ron Whitt, director of computer information systems for Washington County government.

Whitt said his department has been working for several years so the county system will meet year 2000 standards.

"We kind of saw the writing on the wall," he said.

The problem with computers and the year 2000 began in the 1960s and 1970s, when computers were large, expensive systems confined to businesses and governments. To save space and money, dates were abbreviated to six-digit codes. For example, July 4, 1997, could have been displayed as 07/04/97.

That is fine until the computers that use such coding venture beyond 1999. They could identify 2000, listed as 00 in their code, as 1900.

Some imagine humorous results, like a 105-year-old man getting a notice to attend kindergarten. But the confusion could be no joke for banks, insurance agencies, hospitals and other institutions that make abundant use of dates in their computer systems.

The problem could also reach credit-card machines, elevators and anything else that uses date coding, industry observers said.

"There is no question in my mind that when 2000 hits, there are going to be problems that could possibly have dramatic impact," said Allen Parrish, who has studied the 2000 problem as an associate professor of computer science at the University of Alabama.

Miscalculations could be made, programs could be rendered inoperable, and doomsday predictions have some entire systems shutting down.

"Lots of things may happen, and it depends on how date-oriented your software is," said Frank Stearn, owner of Sunrise Computers in Chambersburg, Pa.

Officials with First Data Merchant Services Corp., which has a credit card processing facility near Hagerstown, and the Internal Revenue Service's computer center near Martinsburg, W.Va., said they have been preparing for the situation for several years, and hope to have their vast computer systems ready a year before 2000 so that testing can be done.

"You do not want to wait until the year 2000. You are probably going to want to have everything in place by 1999," said Chuck Koeneke, the IRS center's public affairs officer.

Koeneke said he did not know how much the 2000 work will cost, but industry observers estimate that the total price tag for making computers and their software safe for the next millennium could be between $300 billion and $600 billion worldwide.

The 2000 problem - which has spawned a cottage industry of programmers, business consultants and software companies specializing in 2000 solutions - can be costly to fix because it isn't a single defect.

The problem might be in the software or lie in code embedded into a system's hardware, or a complex combination of both. Each unique problem has its own solution.

"Like anything else, there is no fix all," Stearn said.

Stearn and others advise people to check with their software makers and computer manufacturers to see if their systems are ready for 2000. Even software and hardware made in the past few years could still have the problem, so it doesn't hurt to check, they said.

Carey Leverett, director of management information systems for Washington County Hospital, said the hospital's software was brought up to 2000 compliance as part of a regular computer software upgrade, at no additional cost.

But some industry observers worry that the potentially time-consuming and costly steps to ensure 2000 compatibility are keeping many businesses and government agencies from addressing the problem now.

"The scary problem is I'm not sure every company is taking it seriously," said Jay Rosenfeld, vice president for millennium services for COMSYS, a Houston-based staffing firm that is providing 2000 services.

Even though there has been a flood of publicity over the 2000 issue, Rosenfeld said there are many businesses that wrongly believe the problem is not extensive and can be easily fixed.

"I think they believe there will be some miracle that will help them through this," he said.

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