Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Zoning in on a Solution

Is the Millenium Bug really a problem?

By James Hanback Jr.

MARCH 16, 1998:  As the year 2000 approaches, nowhere has Millennium Fever hit harder than in the computer industry. While mindless news anchors and talk-show hosts babble on about the consequences of owning a personal computer when Old Man 1999 turns over his mantle to Baby New Year 2000, it is important to remember that very few of them really know what they're talking about.

It's known as the Year 2000 Bug, the Millennium Bug, Y2K, and by any number of other names. What it means is something up for debate.

Here's the theory: Computer engineers in the 1960s and 1970s solved problems as many do today, one issue at a time. When you're working with experimental technology and ways to improve it, there's rarely time or place to do any crystal-ball gazing and determine what future problems your current actions may cause.

When developers produced much of the hardware and software in use by such long-standing institutions as banks, no one thought about storing the current year as anything but a two-digit number. Therefore, 1999 is read by many computers and many software applications as "99." That means computers could interpret Jan. 1, 2000 (or 01-01-00 in computer-ese) as Jan. 1, 1900.

Basically, if you have a Pentium computer constructed in the mid- to late-1990s, or if you have an Apple Macintosh system, chances are that your hardware will not be affected by Y2K. It is likely, however, that some systems sold as late as last year still contain the 2000 bug.

Software, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. The havoc potential there is limited only by the imagination: Bank accounts could be terminated. Billing by any number of companies could suddenly be 100 years overdue. Some fatalists even go as far as to say that airplanes will fall out of the sky and power companies will shut down.

Radio talk personality and former federal prisoner G. Gordon Liddy, interviewing the author of a book on this subject, recently told his listeners to "get your rifles ready." By his reasoning, Y2K will cause grocery stores to close; neighbors will all go wild in an attempt to break into other people's houses and steal their food. "It's going to be Armageddon!" he shouted into his radio mic.

Bunk.

The truth is, no one knows what Y2K may ultimately mean, but a vast number of financial institutions and other corporations throughout the country are busily upgrading their computer systems to kill the problem. In fact, the author of Time Bomb 2000, the book that so affrighted Liddy, takes a wishy-washy view on the subject, leaving it completely up to the reader to decide if Y2K is a real concern or just another attack of Millennium Fever.

Locally, financial institutions are not taking any chances. The Bank of Nashville and First Tennessee Bank, among others, have plans in place to upgrade their computer equipment and eliminate the bug. First Tennessee Bank, in fact, has dedicated an entire department called Project 2000 to the effort.

"Every bank in the world is working on it," says Anne Cheatham, senior vice president of The Bank of Nashville. "We've been very proactive about determining whether we needed to upgrade or whether we are already compliant."

Y2K may mean a whole lot of people spending a whole lot of money on a whole lot of new computer systems. This conclusion has led some analysts to say that businesses will be spending millions of dollars simply to maintain the status quo, and that it will spell disaster for the world economy. The stock market, they say, will crash and the world's monetary systems will go up in flames.

Again, it's dangerous to make such predictions. "What they're worried about is folks spending a lot of money and not getting any return on it," Cheatham says. "That could be the case in some situations, like teller software, where a few extra bells and whistles might make things a little easier. The effectiveness really depends on the ability of the individual managing the window."

In The Bank of Nashville's case, Cheatham says she believes the company's expenditures will amount to adequate returns. In addition, the company has prepared for the Y2K contingency by providing itself with a regular upgrade budget. "The year 2000 upgrades are falling nicely in line with our plans," she notes.

Most year 2000 upgrades won't simply be maintaining the status quo by patching old equipment and old software. Ideally, they'll be replacing old technology with brand-new Y2K-free technology. Along with those upgrades will come new software with dozens of new and more powerful features.

At least, that's the way it should be done. Those companies attempting to rewrite the bug out of old software may run into more trouble than those who simply upgrade. And so society will benefit from the change.

The people likely to be most affected by Y2K are not members of large corporations or financial institutions. They don't work for airlines or power companies. They're not in the automotive industry, or in the publishing industry--traditionally the slowest technology-dependent industry to upgrade.

Those most affected will be small-business owners--personal computer owners who can't afford to upgrade their computer systems. In that case, the economy could indeed suffer an impact from Y2K.

Until Jan. 1, 2000, we'll just have to try to plan for every contingency we can. For now, when you buy new hardware or new software, ask the dealer if it's ready for the year 2000. If you're running old software, call the manufacturer and ask if your version will be affected by Y2K. If the answer is yes, ask if there is a 2000-ready version available, and upgrade to that version.

Bytes

Hack attacks

Computer hackers were extremely busy emulating their favorite movie character from the 1980s film War Games last week. Reports at www.cnn.com Friday claimed that a small band of hackers invaded some of the U.S. military's unclassified documents. In addition, other pranksters had also found a way into computers running Windows NT with direct connections to the Internet and caused them to crash.

Our buddies at Microsoft have already released a patch to prevent this from happening again--along with a statement that's the equivalent of a big corporate shoulder shrug. "All the major operating systems are attacked from time to time," said one Microserf.

Reports indicated that the attack affected thousands of NT-operated computers with direct Internet connections; computers were fed invalid data, which the computers continued to attempt to process until they finally crashed. Users who do not have direct connections to the Internet were probably shielded from the attack through their service providers.

Gates for the defense

Microsoft founder Bill Gates finally had his say before the Senate Judiciary Committee March 3. The committee hopes to uncover whether Microsoft violated its 1995 agreement with the Justice Department that it would not seek to monopolize the computer industry with Windows.

The Justice Department is accusing Microsoft of attempting to "take over the Internet" by including Internet Explorer with Windows. That integration, they say, could give Microsoft the ability to control the 'Net and charge a fee for transactions over it.

Gates disagreed, stating that the Internet is an impossible entity to control. "The beauty of the Internet is its openness," he explained. "It cannot be controlled or dominated or cut off because it is simply a constantly changing series of linkages."

Let's hope so. The Internet is too great a resource to belong to anyone.

A browser by any other name...

Curiously enough, Microsoft is changing its Internet Explorer promotional policy to fall in line with its founder's Justice Department speech. According to reports on the Internet, Microsoft is now allowing Internet service providers who have deals with the company to promote other Web browsers, such as Netscape Navigator.

According to the original policy, service providers who made deals with Microsoft were only allowed to promote Internet Explorer when users signed up for the service. Now, Microsoft says, other browsers may be promoted, but they may not be promoted more than Internet Explorer.

Microsoft officials claim the decision had nothing to do with Gates' appearance before the Justice Department the same week.


James Hanback Jr. is the systems administrator for the Scene. He may be contacted by telephone (244-7989, ext. 272), or by e-mail at james@nashscene.com.


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