Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Ten years after doomsday


Millennium bug awareness advert from 1999

The Millennium Bug may not have bitten, but Bill Thompson was there just in case.

I spent the evening of 31 December, 1999 in the company of Rolf Harris, Peter Snow and a large number of other people in a studio at Television Centre in London, seeing in the New Year as the nation's official Millennium Bug watcher.

As anyone who knows about calendars will tell you, the real millennium didn't start until a year later, but I was there because of the very real fear that major computer systems around the world would crash because they could not handle the rollover from 1999 to 2000.

My job on New Year's Eve was to interrupt festivities every hour of the evening to report on what was happening at midnight in different countries around the world.

Peter Snow would drag me in front of the cameras, and I'd stand there like a fraud and talk about some cash registers that stopped working in Scandinavia, because nothing much was going on.

As you may recall, planes didn't fall out of the sky, nuclear power stations didn't explode and digital watches didn't suddenly develop sentience and turn on their owners, blinking savagely as they tightened around unsuspecting wrists.

I seem to recall we had to resort to talking about what people would do with all the pasta and bottled water they had been storing in case of an hi-tech apocalypse.

Families packing away food to prepare for the Millennium Bug

Families hoarding food for the Millennium Bug: BBC News report from November 1, 1999.

Apocalypse postponed

Yet I still believe that it could have been very bad indeed, because many of the doomsday scenarios were frighteningly plausible to anyone who had worked as a programmer, as I had. Apart from the watches, perhaps.

The Millennium Bug, more precisely called the Y2K problem because it involved the year 2000, came about because many older systems stored dates as two-digit numbers instead of the four digits needed to properly represent years in Coordinated Universal Time, so they would treat '00' as coming before '99' and either crash or perform abnormally.

Even though people had been pointing out the potential for trouble since the late 1950s the desire to minimise the use of expensive disk space combined with the complacent assumption that older code would have been superseded by the late 1990s meant that nothing was done to address the issue.

By the mid 1990s awareness had grown to the point that vast amounts of effort and money were spent by organisations around the world to ensure that their software was not going to be affected and government information campaigns ensured that even non-programmers knew something was going on.

Bill Thompson
We may have avoided the Millennium Bug, but when it comes to our general level of computing awareness very little seems to have changed since 1999.
Bill Thompson

Some argued, and continue to argue, that the whole thing was grossly over-exaggerated and that a combination of government ignorance and the manipulations of IT consultants who could see easy money for very little work conspired to drive the world into a frenzy about an issue that was never going to be significant.

Code lessons

However, I used to be a professional programmer, and back in the mid 80s I was writing code that would never have survived the Y2K transition. As far as I know none of the programs I worked on was still in use by 1999, but I could appreciate that a lot of code would have to be fixed before the big day.

I think there are two lessons to be drawn from Y2K.

First, since I believe that there was a real problem and that the money spent sorting it out was justified, it shows that we can coordinate a response to a potential technology disaster if we put our minds to it.

But second, the confusion over the nature of the problem and the general ignorance over what needed to be done and how it should be sorted show just how little understanding most people have about what computers do, how programming works and what might go wrong with IT systems.

We may have avoided the Millennium Bug, but when it comes to our general level of computing awareness very little seems to have changed since 1999 even though our reliance on increasingly complex IT systems is increasing from day to day. It's a shame that the millions spent on Y2K awareness a decade ago aren't available to spend on general IT literacy today.

Computer problems, Eyewire
Computer problems caused by the Bug were few and far between

And Y2K isn't the only rollover to trouble computing. Unix systems, including the increasingly popular Linux kernel, count time as the number of seconds since midnight on 1 January 1970, and at 3:14:08 AM UTC on January 19, 2038 the number of seconds will be too great to be stored in a 32-bit number, as used by older Unix systems. At that point any 32-bit Unix computers will think it is 1970, and may well misbehave.

Today's Unixes tend to use 64 bits to represent integers and so the problem is unlikely to be significant, but SF writer Cory Doctorow has written an entertaining short story set during the rollover.

"Epoch" features a recalcitrant Artificial Intelligence called Mac, and in it Cory makes the point that lots of the internet infrastructure is based on computers that just sit humming in cabinets, disregarded because they simply work, so we can't just assume that the problem will have gone away when the big second arrives, though I doubt it will be a big media story.

I still remember the conflict I felt that night 10 years ago. I was proud of the computer industry for having got its act together and sorted out the problem, but frustrated that it meant I had nothing juicy to report on. Every hour I'd be dragged in front of the camera by Peter Snow and asked if the dreaded Bug had made an appearance, and I had to explain to a waiting nation that nothing much was going wrong and they could go back to partying like it was 1999.

Which, of course, it was.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.

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