Volume 92, Issue 78

Tuesday, February 16, 1999


Y2K - Problem or Paranoia

Cleaning Western's wires

Y2K - Problem or Paranoia

©Mike Longstaff/Gazette

By Sabrina Carinci
Gazette Staff

The millennium is almost here and speculation of what to expect from the world's computers is running rampant. Amid reports of survivalist tactics and ominous predictions of the imminent collapse of the world are those who say nothing is going to happen at all. Still, although the year 2000 is a full 318 days away, it has been causing trouble for businesses and the computer industry since 1995.

The "Y2K millennium bug" is the term coined to describe the problem many computers and computer-operated technology will face Jan. 1, when 1999 becomes 2000 and computers will begin to read the digits 00 as the numbers which represent the year.

"In the '70s memory was very expensive and one way computer programmers could save space was to take the four-digit year notation and condense it to two," says Lynda Leonard, VP-communications for the Information Technology Association of Canada, a company which represents Canada's information technology industry.

Leonard explains the change from 99 to 00 may cause some computers to interpret the numbers as the year 1900. If the affected computers are not adjusted in time, it can cause date-sensitive data to shut down or produce inaccurate information. Electronic services provided by banks, utility companies and even the government are all at risk of having major problems.

"The good news is that the problem has been recognized and under investigation for a number of years," she says.

Since the Y2K problem has been an issue for many years, Leonard believes the worst case scenario would not be anything more serious than the problems experienced in last year's ice storm where, among other inconveniences, parts of the province such as Kingston suffered utility and power outages.

An announcement made by Western administration to delay the return to classes by a week after the holiday break next year is a rational idea, Leonard says. "Though businesses don't necessarily have the latitude to do that," she points out, reinforcing the importance of assessing Y2K-related problems on an individual basis.

"As a bank, we have 10-year mortgages and so the issue has come up before," says Hugh Cameron, a spokesperson for Bank of Nova Scotia. According to Cameron the banks have been working on the Y2K problem for approximately four years and he is confident they will be ready for the clock to strike midnight on Dec. 31.

Cameron explains one concern many customers commonly have is transactions may not be recognized, though he says all money will be protected. "There are 400 people working on the problem," he points out, adding the $162 million budget to fix the problem will help to ensure customer accounts will remain safe from Y2K malfunctions.

"Collectively, the banks have a budget of $1 billion – the domestic and foreign banks are now working co-operatively to test [the new computer systems]," says Sharon Wilks, media relations coordinator for the Canadian Bankers Association who agreed anyone with money invested in banks has little to worry about.

According to Wilks, half of the $1 billion has already been spent to upgrade the 330 computer systems of every bank in Canada. The second half of the funds are presently being used to test these systems. Wilks explains the testing of these new systems is extensive, as the banks are not only testing with each other but also with hydro.

"Even the worst case scenario wouldn't be so horrible," she says, explaining one potential problem may be that people might not be able to access automated banking machines until the bank branches reopen after the holiday. In an attempt to avoid such problems, Wilks suggests people withdraw as much money as they usually would for a long weekend. "The banks haven't forgotten how to do things manually."

Although the banking industry does not expect any problems, Wilks feels any problem which might occur would be minor. "If we expect any problems, they'll be isolated and they'll be fixed."

Neil Froggatt, Windows product manager at the Microsoft Corporation, says he too does not anticipate many problems with computer software in the new year. "From our perspective, there shouldn't be too much happening because we've been working on the Y2K issue for quite some time."

Froggatt does say, however, despite all of the preparations some problems just have not arisen and can only be taken care of on Jan. 1. "Our aim is to make all our software year 2000 compliant but other issues will be adjusted as they show up," he says.

"In the meantime we've created a task force responsible for tracking any problems and figuring out Y2K status for each of our products."

According to Froggatt, Microsoft's preparations for Y2K range from setting up an informational 1-800 number and web site to using feedback from Microsoft customers. "The participation from customers is just amazing," Froggatt says. "A lot of customers experiment with the software and email us with feedback and suggestions which we can incorporate [into the problem solving]."

Worried about your home computer? Froggatt says that newer software such as Windows 98 has been deemed year 2000 compliant with minor issues. The minor issues, Froggatt explains, deal with applications which run directly in DOS. However, since DOS is infrequently used today, computer owners will most likely not have trouble with everyday use of their computer.

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