Y2K a Mere Memory Now

The nation’s Year 2000 czar is now a deputy mayor in Washington, D.C. The $50 million Y2K crisis center houses George W. Bush’s transition team. The international Y2K coordinator plans to relax with friends this New Year’s Eve.

A year after the turn-of-the-millennium computer scare, it’s just a fading memory for most people. But leading figures in the Y2K consciousness-raising effort say the episode taught important and enduring lessons.

“It showed that we can, if we put the resources to it, solve tough global problems of our making,” said Bruce McConnell, who directed the international Y2K effort. “It was a great story of cooperation and hard work. It was expensive, but it was successful.”

For those quick to forget, Y2K was caused by decisions by computer makers decades ago to use two digits to represent the year. The shortcut saved money on memory and storage, but also caused some computers to wrongly interpret 2000 as 1900.

Left uncorrected, the Y2K glitch could have fouled computers that control power grids, air traffic, banking systems and phone networks.

Billions Spent on Prevention

Businesses and governments around the world threw some $200 billion at the problem — and then they watched nervously, hoping enough of the errant dates had been fixed to avert a worldwide disaster.

For the most part they had. The lights didn’t go out. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky. Nuclear missiles didn’t launch in the middle of the night.

Because few problems materialized, those who had sounded the Y2K alarm had to fend off criticism from people who believed they were victims of a big-money bamboozle.

“It’s like saying to a surgeon after he conducts a major intrusive operation that because the patient’s fine, it’s not a big deal,” said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. “Problems did occur, and the fact that it was so minimal means that people did a good job.”

Among the failures: Computers that process images from U.S. spy satellites broke down. Some credit cards charged for the same items multiple times. Japanese nuclear power plants experienced glitches — among them, a failed clock on a reactor monitoring system — but no radiation leaks or safety problems.

Many more failures may have gone unreported. Leon Kappelman, a University of North Texas professor who helped businesses with Y2K assessments, says a major telecommunications company — which he would not identify — experienced 100 Y2K errors during the first week of 2000.

Those problems were quickly fixed, he says, and customers never noticed.

As a Y2K windfall, businesses and governments got better computers and other equipment. With the help of the World Bank and other Y2K funders, poorer countries got machines and Internet connections they were allowed to keep.

Many U.S. businesses weeded out older machines, combined redundant systems and did something they’d never done before: inventoried their software and computers. Individuals, businesses and countries learned to work together. Within companies, technologists talked with executives, often for the first time.

Greater Understanding Gained

Mark Haselkorn, a professor of technical communications at the University of Washington, says previously technophobic managers got to see their organizations as dynamic ecosystems and better understand information systems.

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