WHEN THE CLOCK strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, street revelers celebrating the new millennium could be in for a shock: Computer-driven street lights could go dark, subways may stop running and vast computer systems in businesses and government could crash.
All because of a decision by computer pioneers to save precious space in programming by abbreviating years with two digits. Thus, this year is encoded as 97, next year as 98. But when 2000 arrives -- 00 in our computers -- chaos could ensue. The computers won't know if 00 stands for 1900 or 2000. All sorts of financial accounts could be wiped out, pension checks not delivered, insurance policies canceled. It is potentially a $600 billion worldwide problem, especially in highly industrialized nations.
Maryland officials last week took a crucial step in solving their part of the puzzle, approving an unusual fast-track method that lets one coordinating office parcel out contracts to 26 pre-approved companies that fix digital glitches. Their task will be imposing: 60,000 programs in state agencies that could need repair, covering billions of lines of encoded software.
But don't despair. Early work on this problem by Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein has led to some interesting findings: Of the 6,000 computer programs in his department, some were obsolete, others were not significant and many didn't have a 00 flaw. Only half of the comptroller's software -- 3,000 programs -- needed fixing, and nearly 60 percent of these computer corrections have been completed.
Thus, the state's remediation efforts may not require the full $100 million authorized by the Board of Public Works. But state agencies now have the tools to find out quickly the scope of their computer defects, and get a contractor working on software changes right away.
Sadly, many private-sector companies are not in such good shape. Congressional panels have expressed alarm about the slow pace of federal government reprogramming. And some local government agencies may be ignoring the danger. Remedies are hugely expensive and time-consuming. And the consequences of delay could be catastrophic. As a state task force noted earlier this year, "Time is running out."
Pub Date: 9/01/97