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Book Reviews

Computer Crisis 2000

by W. Michael Fletcher

The Year 2000 Computing Crisis: A Millennium Date Conversion Plan

by Jerome T. Murray and Marilyn Murray

The Year 2000 Problem Solver: A Five Step Disaster Prevention Plan

by Bryce Ragland

The Year 2000 Software Problem: Quantifying the Costs and Assessing the Consequences

by Capers Jones

Doomsday is coming! Doomsday is coming!

Sort of.

Welcome to the Year 2000 Problem, also known in computer circles as Y2K, also known as the Millennium Bug, also known as the biggest single pain-in-the-butt that computer professionals have faced since the dawn of their industry. Depending who you ask, the potential impact of this gargantuan glitch ranges from the trivial to the apocalyptic – from the minor annoyance of malfunctioning VCRs to the complete collapse of information systems governing banks, stock markets, utilities, and government.

Y2K’s origins are buried in the minutiae of old-fashioned programming practices and the technological limitations of the first computers. In the early days of mainframe computing – when programs were written on punch cards and room-sized behemoths packed less computing power than a pocket calculator – storage capacity was at a huge premium. The price per kilobyte of stored data was so high that programmers saved as much space as possible, with little consideration for long term consequences. Date fields in most computer programs written until the 1980s left only two digits for the year. Much to the surprise of everybody involved, much of this software code – written 30 and more years ago in semi-forgotten programming languages like COBOL and FORTRAN – is still in widespread use around the world.

It all sounds stupefyingly banal until you consider the implications of the four digit changeover to the new millennium. The relentless binary logic of computers means that machines running older software will automatically assume that 00 means 1900 (or, in some cases, 1980 or 1984 depending on the operating system). The potential for chaos is obvious, particularly in heavily date-dependent industries like banking, air traffic control, and electricity generation. Even some older personal computer hardware and software may be affected, threatening the stability and accuracy of spreadsheets, databases, local area networks, and comparable programs. (Macintosh computers and most newer PCs are safe, but not all of the software written for these machines is Year 2000 compliant.)

Worse, many corporations and public institutions have been slow to recognize the significance of the problem and are scrambling to verify and correct millions of lines of computer code – a global undertaking that, according to some estimates, may cost in excess of $600-billion (U.S.). As time runs out and the pool of available programmers dries up, organizations run the ever-greater risk of missing the deadline. According to Michael Fletcher in Computer Crisis 2000, Revenue Canada is largely ready for 2000 thanks to system upgrades that came in with the GST and NAFTA, but the American IRS is so unprepared that the possibility of tax collection chaos in the U.S. looms large.

Ironically, the impending Y2K crisis has generated a huge windfall for programmers, consulting firms, and the book industry. As often happens with big ticket events in the trade, a virtual tide of Year 2000 titles is flooding bookstores, creating yet another kind of data crisis: information overload. Thankfully, many of these books are quite useful and give a solid overview of the problem. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, however, it’s important that consumers know which book is most appropriate to their needs.

Computer Crisis 2000 by W. Michael Fletcher is an extremely useful, if brief, reference for individuals and small- to medium-sized businesses. Despite Fletcher’s meat-and-potatoes writing style, this book provides some indispensable insights into both the technological aspects of Y2K, and its managerial and psychological components. In his well-reasoned introduction, Fletcher clearly explains the origins of the millennium bug and why the bottom-line obsession of many corporations has exacerbated the problem.

Like most of the other books reviewed here, Fletcher makes the point that Y2K is essentially a problem of psychology rather than technology. The issue has been discussed for years, and the computer industry faced similar, smaller crises in both 1970 and 1980. Yet many information systems professionals have had difficulty convincing management to invest the tremendous resources required to fix the problem. This book, along with The Year 2000 Problem Solver, reviewed below, can provide lower-level employees with the ammunition they need to convince their bosses to act now. They’ll have to hurry, though. Companies that haven’t begun their Y2K compliance procedures by now are in grave danger of missing the millennial deadline.

One of the best aspects of Computer Crisis 2000 is Fletcher’s step-by-step approach to ensuring the whole organization is onside and making the effort to correct the problem. Moreover, he discusses the legal implications of becoming – or neglecting to become – Year 2000 compliant, and provides readers with a strategy to protect themselves (or their companies) from the failure of others to become compliant. Though Fletcher covers the problem from a North American point of view, Computer Crisis 2000 is the only book reviewed here that provides a Canadian perspective on the issue.

The Year 2000 Computing Crisis: A Millennium Date Conversion Plan by Jerome T. Murray and Marilyn J. Murray is an entirely different kind of book. More of an extended computer program printed on paper than a true general reference, this book is only really useful for programmers and other highly technical users. It provides perfectly serviceable background information – complete with scenarios of exploding chemical factories and stock market meltdowns – and then leaps directly into a theoretical discussion on the nature of time, and cryptic discussions of algorithms and gosub routines. Halfway through the book, the standard text pages are suddenly replaced with horizontal programming printouts in a format that will be familiar to programmers of an earlier era. There is no immediate way to test the authors’ date-correction algorithms, but the book is a good starting point for digital ditch-diggers. This is not a book for mere mortals trying to get a handle on the problem.

The Year 2000 Problem Solver: A Five Step Disaster Prevention Plan by Bryce Ragland is written in yet another entirely different language. This is a business book designed for large organizations. The emphasis here is on function points and cost-analysis graphs rather than algorithms and date fields. Ragland outlines the real threat corporations face from Y2K and provides five seemingly simple corrective steps: Awareness, Assessment, Renovation, Validation, and Implementation.

Interestingly – and frighteningly – Ragland provides concrete estimates of a company’s chances of correcting the problem by mid-1999. Companies that began Y2K compliance programs in 1994 and 1995 will likely have 100% of their software applications corrected by 1999. Those that waited until this year risk having only 60% of their software ready, while those that wait until early 1999 will not be able to correct more than 30%. Unfortunately, if even 10% of a firm’s software is non-compliant, corruption of data and processes may ensue.

This book is an excellent choice for managers trying to come up with a coherent last-minute Y2K plan. More than a third of the book is devoted to listing Year 2000 resources like consulting firms specializing in the problem, and the rest of it is a boss-friendly, non-techie handholding guide to the issue.

The Year 2000 Software Problem: Quantifying the Costs and Assessing the Consequences by Capers Jones (who also wrote the foreword to the Ragland book) is primarily a legal and financial guide to the Year 2000 problem. It’s almost as technical as The Year 2000 Computing Crisis but is aimed mostly at accountants, lawyers, and other middle-managers – people who love their pie charts. It’s an extremely thorough, dry-as-dust tome designed to assess the costs of Y2K compliance and non-compliance, and the potential legal liabilities for corporations. It has several extremely useful chapters, including warnings about certain methods of repairing non-Y2K compliant databases, but it’s probably not the kind of book someone racing against the Year 2000 deadline would want to start with. At this late date one would probably want to begin with one of the other books reviewed above and then consult Jones about in-depth legal and financial issues after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been corralled.