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1998-05-13 10:30:04


Spreadsheets: Data Inside Them Use Two-Digit Century



This was testimony presented a computer specialist to the Senate Banking Committee.

Think of spreadsheets. The spreadsheet was the "killer application" that launched the desktop computer revolution: Visicalc, which was used on the Apple I. The spreadsheet is a universal business tool. The calculations that spreadsheets perform are used to run the modern world.

They won't be reliable much longer. No one will be able to trust the calculations they perform.

I have an image of some 70-year-old man wearing a green eye shade, sitting in a back room. He is verifying the calculations. He is a month behind. "I warned those kids," he thinks to himself. "You can't trust computers."

Another image: a 70-year-old man with an abacus, sitting in a back room. He is verifying the calculations. He is three weeks behind. He is thinking to himself, "Confucius say, 'Man who lie down with dog named Big Blue get up with bugs.'"

This is all imaginary, of course. Business in the year 2000 will not force anyone to be a month behind in calculations. More likely, the two old men will be playing solitaire. Every once in a while, one of them calls to the front, "You guys got any sales yet?" Nope.

* * * * * * * * *

The spreadsheet package itself may in fact be Year 2000 compliant. But, as you can see, the spreadsheet program was built using two-digit instead of four digit year dates. Note the data accurately reflects the historical sales and expense data from 1990 through 1998. Beginning in 1999, the program forecasts sales, expense and profit data - this is in the green shaded area. The forecasted numbers are correct in 1999. But the numbers appear illogical for the year 2000 and beyond. That's because the computer, in using two digits for date calculations, now produces erroneous results, and the projections become useless. . . .

This program can easily be fixed by properly using four-digit year fields. But there are millions upon millions of simple and much more complex and sophisticated programs that have been created over the past two decades on personal computers using two-digit date fields. How many of these are critical to the functions of an organization? Asked another way: how many organizations can afford to wait until these programs fail and disrupt their business functions?


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