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1997-01-02 00:00:00


IBM, 1986: "Shut Up About Y2K or Face Action!"



So, you think that the Year 2000 Problem could have been solved, if only people had known about it in time. Wrong! From the day that programmers decided to save space by going to a two-digit century standard, the crisis that is now about to hit us was fixed in stone. Worse: fixed in mainframe computer producers' policy.

On June 30, 1986, Chris Anderson, a South African, ran an ad in the magazine, COMPUTING SA. The headline: "The Timebomb in Your IBM Mainframe System." The ad drew four responses: two that were not serious, two that were. One of the serious ones was from IBM, which threatened action. IBM did Mr. Anderson a great favor. COMPUTING SA never again ran Mr. Anderson's ad. When you get one serious response (with no money) from an ad, it's time to stop running the ad.

Here is my point: the Millennium Bug was recognized by IBM more than a decade ago. The IBM letter forthrightly admitted: "IBM and other vendors have known about this for many years." Furthermore, "This problem is fully understood by IBM's software developers, who anticipate no difficulty in programming around it."

We are hearing the same refrain in today's press releases, letters from corporations and public utilities, and newspaper columns. "No problem!" Well, anyway, "No really big problem." We will know by March, 2000. Maybe sooner.

Users took half of IBM's advice: the easy half. "Put simply, then, the position is as follows: those users still working a two-digit field field can continue to do so, always bearing in mind the need to convert to a four-digit field by the year 2000." Users continued to use two digits: the easy part. They neglected to switch to four digits: the hard part.

You and I are now going to pay the price for their neglect.

Mr. Anderson's language was apocalyptic. This apocalyptic language is as resented now as it was in 1986: "No terrorist organisation or disillusioned hacker could plant a more skillful, destructive or international boobytrap."

Mr. Anderson warned of complacency in 1986. The same complacency exists today: "Fourteen years seems a long time. The gut reaction to this problem is to hope that it will go away. Somebody else will fix it. None are prepared to do anything about it."

That paragraph is why I put this document under "Compliance" rather than "Introduction." It shows why there is no possibility of compliance, and why there was none in 1986. There was none from the day that programmers adopted the 2-digit century standard. From that day, the West was doomed to experience the Millennium Time Bomb -- what he called "the date timebomb." Habit, cost considerations, and lethargy had taken over long before 1986. Habit, money, and lethargy are powerful social forces.


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