December 31, 2000 6:00 AM PST

Y2K fizzle sparks some lessons

Y2K is mostly just a memory these days.

Instead of the frantic round-the-clock programming crunch of a year ago, most of the people involved are actually enjoying the holidays.

"We've been on vacation most of this year," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

In Washington, D.C., former Y2K czar John Koskinen is now the deputy mayor and chief administrator of the city; his former Y2K crisis center is the transition headquarters for George W. Bush's administration.

And while the Y2K bug wound up being a fizzle, it did teach the tech community a lesson or two, Miller said.

"The Y2K problem showed that information technology (IT) was critical to an organization. From the management chain to the boardroom, IT got more attention," Miller said.

And the fact that there were only minor problems means he and his fellow Y2K fixers did their job, he said, dismissing critics who say the entire episode was all hype.

"It's like telling a surgical team that because the patient made it in good health, it wasn't a big deal or success," Miller said.

The Y2K problem arose out of a nifty way to save space in computer code back in the early days of computer programming. The Y2K glitch, also known as the millennium bug, stems from an old programming shortcut that used only two digits to signify years, such as "76" for 1976. If computer systems do not get modified, the year 2000 could be interpreted as the year 1900 and crash the system or cause glitches.

Years before the century date change, businesses and governments spent untold sums to warn of widespread chaos from the Y2K bug. In turn, the dire predictions drove companies, agencies, schools, corner stores, and ordinary citizens to collectively spend billions of dollars--some say trillions--in preparation for the impending Year 2000 disaster.

But just weeks before the big day, much of the earlier hype subsided. Although some problems did happen, many experts changed course and said that serious damage from the most celebrated bug in high-tech history would be minimal.

Those later forecasts have held up, giving further support to those who long considered the Y2K anomaly a bunch of hooey.

"I thought it was definitely a lot of hype," said Glenn Mills, the creative director and information technology coordinator at Total Immersion, a small business in New Paltz, New York. The company teaches swimming stroke technique to triathletes, masters and fitness swimmers.

In retrospect, Mills considers the whole Y2K issue a study in human nature: "It was a massive thing to be alive at the turn of the century. Doomsayers came out and said the end of the century will affect everyone," including computers and technology, Mills said.

There were a few problems.

Several states said they encountered glitches in licensing processes, motor vehicle division problems either in issuing renewal licenses or conducting drivers license testing. Others reported cosmetic date-related problems, such as printing out the wrong dates for functions. At the Birmingham Airport, a telephone system showed the date as December 32.

Throughout the early part of 2000, software and computer companies announced minor glitches in software applications as well as the Y2K's impact on software and hardware sales.

 

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