What's the big deal?

By Ralph B. Davis
Associate Editor

Perhaps you're a computer novice or don't even own a computer. Maybe you're a seasoned computer professional who just doesn't get all the hype. Or perhaps you've heard all about Y2K and can't understand why there's such a fuss about the change from 1999 to 2000. In any case, you're probably asking yourself the same question millions of others are:

What's the big deal anyway?

To understand the millennium bug, you have to travel back in time about 30 years to when computers first came into vogue.

Of course, back then, there was no such thing as a personal computer. In-stead, businesses and government agencies were turning to mainframe computers to simplify their jobs.

The problem was, unlike now when memory upgrades and hard-drive replacements are as cheap and easy as buying a VCR, everything associated with computers was extremely expensive. A single megabyte of memory could cost thousands of dollars.

Even as late as 1984, when Apple Computer unveiled its first Macintosh with one megabyte of memory and no hard drive, the pricetag was about $2,000.

So, in the late 1960s and 1970s, programmers were under orders to conserve as much as possible. One cost-saving measure they chose to implement was to use shorthand when expressing a date's year, using "76" instead of "1976," for example.

It wasn't that the programmers were necessarily short-sighted. At the time, many realized that the two-digit notation could cause problems later on, but figured that as computers became cheaper to produce, they would be replaced with more up-to-date ones.

That, however, didn't quite pan out. Instead of replacing their old mainframes, most businesses and government agencies simply upgraded them or added on, leaving their old computers in place as the base for their entire systems.

Now, as the century draws to a close, many businesses and government agencies are finding out that their computer systems are out-of-date -- that when the year 2000 rolls around, their mainframes will change from "99" to "00," 100 years in the past.

The story of Y2K, then, is how one shortcut decades earlier became a global problem costing companies billions of dollars to fix ahead of time, and no one knows how much to repair after January 1.

Still, perhaps you're still wondering why the millennium bug is a problem. So what if computers think the year is 00?

Imagine you run a business on one of these computers. All of your financial information -- accounts receivable, accounts payable, inventory, payroll, etc. -- is contained on this obsolete system. Sudden-ly, your billing program thinks none of your customers owe anything for another 95 years.

The problem grows wider. If your bank depends on such a computer, your savings account could be erased. If your electric company's power plants isn't caught up, the computers which operate the plant could suddenly shut down completely, unable to resolve the inconsistency.

Even the computer in your own home might not be safe. If you own an IBM-compatible PC running Windows 98, you're not necessarily out of hot water if you haven't made sure to download the appropriate update. If you use anything prior to Windows 98, you are definitely not Y2K-ready.

Apple's Macintosh computers have been Y2K-compliant ever since the first one rolled off the assembly line (in fact, they're good until the year 29,940).

But even if you own a Macintosh or PC which has a millennium-proof operating system, that doesn't mean you're necessarily out of the woods. While your computer may continue to function properly, individual programs on it -- word processors, spreadsheets, graphics programs, even games -- might not.

Starting to see the problem?