A New Year Embarrassment for Y2K Doomsters

October 5, 1999

By Wynn Quon

Jan. 1, 2000, will be a bad day for the Y2K industry. When the clocks roll over into the new century, we will see something unexpected: nothing. None of the apocalyptic set pieces we've heard so much about will happen -- no major power failures, no phone outages, no airplanes falling from the skies, no businesses going belly-up. We will only see that the Y2K industry has sold us a bill of goods.

Y2K experts have been furiously backpedalling recently. They now predict that although North America will be largely unscathed, the imprudent rest of the world -- slow to accept the stories of doom and gloom -- will get its comeuppance. In reality, theY2K experts will fall on their faces. Before we see why, let's go over some past Y2K predictions.

  • In January of this year, waves of computer failures were supposed to hit us as software programs started using dates that looked ahead into the year 2000.
  • In February, Y2K experts warned that travel reservations systems would lock up when travellers started booking their year 2000 vacations.
  • In April and July, the Y2K industry predicted serious failures in government computers and business systems as fiscal year 2000 began.
  • In August, the Global Positioning System's internal clock rolled over.Though not directly related to Y2K, Y2K pundits predicted the resulting confusion in the navigation systems of aircraft and ships would cause disasters -- a taste of what would come in 2000.
  • In September, the worry date was the 9th. Computers would go on the fritz because 9/9/99 might be interpreted incorrectly.

So what actually happened? In January, only a half dozen noteworthy Y2K failures were reported across the entire world. More importantly, technicians fixed them within 24 hours. In February, the number of Y2K-related problems in the travel reservation systems was zero. In April, the number of Y2K bugs was diddley. In August, the number of airplane accidents and marine incidents due to the GPS rollover was squat. And most recently, Sept. 9 was a non-event.

The kicker: These predictions fell through not just in North America but in Europe, Asia and South America as well. The difference is that North Americans paid billions of dollars to Y2K consultants for our non-events. Y2K experts have been quick to say that the sailing has been smooth only because of their efforts. But why the calm in the unenlightened parts of the world?

To anyone following the Y2K industry's pronouncements, its inaccuracy isn't surprising. From the beginning, the leading Y2K experts' research standards have been dismal. Edward Yourdon, in his book Time Bomb 2000, talks about elevators not working and tells us not to drive on Dec. 31 because a "critical chip" may fail. But neither elevators nor cars have date-sensitive chips in their critical components.

Take Peter de Jager's website (www.year2000.com). Billed as the "clearinghouse" for Y2K information, you will be hard-pressed to find anything about real Y2K problems. You will find 90 consulting firms and tool vendors, all ready to cure your Y2K ills for a fee. To top things off, an archive of feature articles repeats many of the urban legends in Mr. Yourdon's book as gospel.

Y2K experts like to say that "no one really knows what will happen" on Jan. 1. This is an intellectual cop-out of massive proportions. Following the same line of reasoning, we should not venture out of our houses because "no one really knows" if we'll get struck by lightning or get run over by a bus. The normal way to deal with risks is to measure their likelihood. Without a measure, Y2K fear is nothing but technological hypochondria. Yet no one in the Y2K industry gathers this information, although after all the remediation efforts and contracts, they would be in the best position to know. Fortunately some numbers are available on the Internet:

  • Ontario Hydro discovered that 2% of their systems had Y2K bugs. Of these, one-quarter -- a tiny 0.5% failure rate -- would affect service. Even if these problems had not been fixed, technicians would have been able to work around them on Jan. 1, 2000, to ensure uninterrupted power.
  • GE Medical Systems has posted a list of their compliant and non-compliant products (www.ge.com/medical/year2000/index.htm). Of roughly 400 products, only 14 have core operational problems -- a 3.5% failure rate.
  • Worried about your household appliances? Mitch Ratcliffe runs one of the few Y2K sites (www.zdnet.com/zdy2k/1998/12/5314.html) that focuses on facts rather than fear. According to Mr. Ratcliffe, concern about appliances remains one of "the most pernicious Y2K myths." The failure rate for appliances is zero.
  • One more: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/main/drugs/htmleng/y2k_advisory.html gives a survey of pacemakers. The number of Y2K problems is zero.

These statistics paint a picture of a millennial breeze rather than a hurricane. In truth, dates and date information are generally not needed for our systems to work. And designers of critical infrastructure (like the power grid and the telephone network) are trained to engineer systems that do not spread faults willy-nilly.

The low Y2K problem rate is one reason to be optimistic when the New Year arrives. Another is human ingenuity. Suppose on Jan. 1, 2000, your VCR flashes "12:00" because of a millennium bug (it won't, because the number of buggy VCRs is -- you guessed it -- zero). What would you do? You'd just set the date back one year. You're using your head to fix the problem -- something that Y2K doomsayers have trouble understanding. They would rather believe we are slaves to our machines. They think that the legions of technicians hired to make sure computer systems stay up will be helpless at the first sign of trouble.

In fact, contemplate the reverse: Technicians have known about Y2K for years in advance, they will be manning the systems on Dec. 31, and they have contingency plans in place. Keeping the systems up is a point of pride with most technical people. It's a test of their prowess. These folks jerry-rig systems to deal with hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, the whole gamut of natural and man-made disasters. The technicians in the less-developed countries face tough challenges, combatting conditions of semi-chaos on a day-to-day basis. Y2K is a cakewalk compared to their routine troubles.

Y2K experts mistakenly believe that society is so fragile that a few computer glitches will bring us to our knees. Recently they've cited the Great Ice Storm of 1998 to show our dependency on technology. But almost no businesses failed as a direct result of the storm, despite prolonged power outages. The folks who fear Y2K think that businesses won't survive disruption. But disruptions happen all the time. General Motors had a strike last year that lasted for two months. They're still around.

Buying into pessimistic Y2K forecasts means buying into a house-of-cards view of society that casts us as helpless victims and ignores the ingenious, problem-solving spirit in all of us.

When the history of the millennium bug is finally written, no computer failures will have been worth noting. On Dec. 31 don't worry about the rest of the world. Think instead about the opportunities missed by spending billions of dollars on phantom problems rather than real ones.

Wynn Quon is a Chief Technology Analyst at Legado Associates. www.legadoassociates.com ; email:wynn_quon@hotmail.com