Why the millennium bug didn’t bite


When discussing things like climate change, brexit, nuclear waste et al, you’ll often hear the response, oh it will all work itself out in the end. After all, remember that millennium bug which was supposed to cause Armageddon and then nothing happened. Surely this is more of the same? Well yes and no. Because the truth is that the millennium bug is something that is often misunderstood, and hence worth discussing in a bit more detail.

Firstly, things DID fail as a result of the millennium bug, causing some minor disruption. The reason why this disruption wasn’t more widespread was because of all the preparation work undertaken in the lead up to the millennium. Indeed, most of the systems that failed turned out to be things that were overlooked during those preparations.

A few years prior to the millennium I was working in an office over the summer. And as I was the youngest that made me the designated computer nerd (even though my knowledge of IT was somewhat limited). Anyway, I checked a few of our older PC’s and indeed a couple of them did fail the test, including one that was acting as a printer server. Now this wasn’t any reason to panic, it just meant earmarking those PC’s for replacement at the next round of IT upgrades and making sure that upgrade happened before December 1999.

I climbed through the roof spaces of maximum security prisons doing inventory of PLCs [programmable logic controllers] for Y2K – 80% of systems worked fine, 15% date-rolled over to [the] 1970s, 3% failed, maybe 2% catastrophically.Matthew Hackling, IT expert.

Other companies took things a little further. In 1999 I was working for a major manufacturing company (in the labs) and they decided to upgrade their entire stock of PC’s before the millennium. This wasn’t solely done to protect themselves from the millennium bug, but it was also intended to standardise the computers and the operating systems across the site (some were so old they were still using VMS and Windows 3.1!). Longer term this would hopefully reduce costs and help to improve network security. So assuming most companies were following similar policies, its perhaps no surprise not much happened because we spent a lot of money to make sure it didn’t happen. Indeed, one of the IT guys pointed out to me the company was spending the equivalent of twice its annual IT budget on this IT roll out.

But where did those predictions about Armageddon come from? Well there were tests conducted prior to the Millennium which did highlight a number of potential serious problems, prompting a bit of a panic, but again this just meant those systems got upgraded and fixed. Also the tabloids inevitably talked up the more outlandish stories, because that’s what sells newspapers, and largely ignored the fact that action was being taken to deal with the problem.

Yes you literally had Daily Mail journalists banging out stories predicting Armageddon and the end to civilisation, while some PFY from the IT department worked their way around the office upgrading PC’s to make them millennium ready. Then after January the 1st, those very same tabloids started claiming that it was all a hoax and overblown. Failing to point out that they’d been the ones responsible for all of the panic.

So, what can we learn from all of this? Well firstly, not to trust the tabloids. I still recall how a few winters ago they predicted tens of thousands of deaths in the UK would happen due to a little bit of snow. But the scary stuff about climate change isn’t coming from the tabloids, its coming from the IPCC and respected scientists. And as noted, the scientists were largely correct about the millennium bug, some machines would have failed if they’d not be replaced and that would have caused some serious problems (e.g. if that print server had failed, they’d have gotten back after the Christmas break and not been able to print, meaning a tender could have been lost, costing a small firm tens of thousands of euros).

In fact the millennium bug had a much wider economic impact, one we are arguably still living with the consequences of today – the dot-com bubble. Recall what I said about companies spending shed loads of money on upgrading their IT infrastructure prior to the millennium. Now like I said, this wasn’t solely about the millennium bug, it also made sense in terms of standardising IT infrastructure to bring down operating costs. The rapid pace of the computer age meant there was a lack of standardisation and many IT departments took the opportunity to standardise across their networks. This produced a strong surge in orders for new PC’s and software leading up to the end of 1999. But of course after the millennium, given that they’d essentially spent the year 2000 IT budget in 1999, there was a sharp drop in spending.

The trouble was that many in the dot com industries just assumed that current trends would keep going on forever. They failed to spot the fact that the rise in sales was temporary and that there would be a sharp drop in orders just after the millennium. In fact the penny only dropped around about April 2000 when major IT firms started to post profit warnings, sparking the bursting of the bubble, which wiped out tens of billions of dollars worth of investments. So you could argue the millennium bug came with a fairly significant price tag, both in terms of preparing for it and the losses in the IT industry afterwards.

This is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. The X factor that will often come into play with many scenarios. And this is one of the things that most worries scientists about climate change, or economic experts about brexit. Its not the stuff they can predict (and thus potentially do something about), its the stuff that’s going to come out of left field which you can’t predict.

And it has to be acknowledged that the millennium bug had a clear and obvious solution – upgrade all computers, electronics and software to be millennium compliant. And there was a definite date by which action had to be taken. By contrast climate change is a bit of a harder problem to tackle. And by the time we see the more serious consequences it will be too late to do anything. While there are solutions, its a lot harder to plan for.

As Matt Simmons once commented, we avoided nuclear war in the cold war and we dodged the millennium bug because we spent many years worrying about these problems. Similarly maybe the solution to problems with climate change and peak oil are to spend many years worrying about them and doing something about it.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in economics, history, politics, sustainability, technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why the millennium bug didn’t bite

  1. neilrieck says:

    I am a software developer (servers) working for a large Canadian telecom and can still recall much of the work done to avoid the millennium bug. First off, you needed to have an OS that was under a paid-up software support agreement. This may mean reinstating a lapsed agreement then installing requisite updates in order to install your vendor-supplied y2k patches. Then you needed to contact the vendor of your application software -or- analyze your own source code if the programs were developed in-house (there were more of these than you could imagine). Special care needed to be taken on systems where either the OS vendor or application vendor where no longer in business. Because of all this, the work started in 1997 but got really rolling in 1998 (long before the public became aware of the problem). Like the Montreal Protocol in 1987, this was a problem identified by, then fixed by, experts. IMHO the IPCC process (which was set up by politicians ticked-off about the Montreal Protocol) is flawed in that scientists draw up the initial reports then politicians are invited to tone it down. This means that whatever you hear coming from the IPCC is not as bad as the real problem.

    • daryan12 says:

      That’s kind of the problem with the IPCC, it blends together all of the different views on climate change and tones things down to form a more middle of the road scenario. The trouble is that its then treated as the worst case scenario (or project fear), when its actually not.

      Also going back to the Y2K bug, one of the things the Armageddon predictors were saying was that the amount of work it would take to fix everything made it impossible to get ready in time. However we did manage it more or less (I recall reading that the failure rate of computers post-2K in the UK was only about 7%). So no reason that can’t be done for climate change when we’ve got a few decades to work on it.

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