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When The Clock Strikes

by Glen Emerson Morris

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The best reason for using a Macintosh computer may be apparent at 12: 01 AM, January 1, 2000. At this point the Macintosh, which uses a 4 digit date, will display the correct time and date, while many government and corporate mainframes, which use a 2 digit date, will be acting is if it were the year 1900. The exact degree of havoc this is likely to cause will be debated increasingly between now and zero hour, but even the best case scenarios cost billions and cause at least some disruption in the digital world we are coming to take for granted.

Advertisers and marketers using the Internet needn't worry about the net having problems with the date change. The Internet runs largely on Unix systems, which measure time based on the number of seconds since the year 1970. The chance of the "date bomb' crashing the Internet is essentially non-existent. Unfortunately, other computer systems and the businesses dependent on them face a very real threat.

The problem is with the thousands of IBM and similar mainframes that evolved in the fifties and sixties when memory was so expensive programmers standardized an abbreviated date, the last two digits of the year, to save space. This was of those short sighted decisions that seemed to be reasonable at the time, but has come back to haunt the society that made it in spades.

A recent report sponsored by the British government estimated that it would cost 50 billion dollars and take 300,000 programmers to fix the date problem in Britain's computers. Since Britain only has about 300,000 programmers, solving the date problem is going to be rather difficult.

The United States may be in a worse position than Britain. The U.S.A. is more dependent on computers, giving it a lot more software to fix, just as it has fewer programmers to fix it with. The United States graduated 42% fewer computer science majors last year than it did ten years ago. The shortage is driving up the price of computer professionals coast to coast, and technology centers like Silicon Valley are having to recruit in Asia and Eastern Europe to get affordable staff.

The computer professional's market is already strained in the U.S.A., and over half of the mainframe departments here haven't started hiring additional staff to fix their software yet. Especially lagging are the hundreds of government mainframe shops, who will start recruiting long after the talent pool is dry and won't be able to offer competitive salaries to lure programmers away from the private sector, who by then will be in a real bidding war for anyone who can program a computer to add 1,999 and 1.

To further complicate matters most of the older mainframes use either COBOL or FORTRAN, programming languages popular in the fifties and sixties, but largely unknown to contemporary programmers. Most of the people familiar with these languages have retired, or soon will.

Even if the talent can be found, there is still a severe time element to overcome. The modified software not only has to be finished by the end of 1999, but it has to be free from any significant bugs, or problems, that might make the software behave unpredictably and incorrectly, perhaps with disastrous results.

Generally speaking, it takes several months to test software once it has been significantly modified. In the case of extremely complex software, it can take a year of more. Testing is likely to prove especially difficult on so-called "real time" systems since they have to stay on all of the time, and couldn't be taken off-line for testing without causing significant disruptions.

Many of the older government systems were replacements for even earlier, more primitive, mainframes. The newer systems were tested while the older systems were still online. When the newer systems were proven operational and went online the older systems were scrapped. There are no backup systems for many government computers to test software on.

Real time banking systems, like Visa, face a similar situation, but they started working on it far sooner, and with sufficient resources. Major banks will probably survive unscathed. However, much of the business world has yet to begin making plans, on either how to fix their own software, or how to handle the problems caused by other businesses' problems with the date change.

Given the degree that media and advertising agencies use mainframes to handle scheduling and billing, the potential difficulties the two digit date problem could cause these industries is significant.

Clients might find their ad agencies unable to send them billing statements, or their broadcast media unable to provide them with a schedule of when their spots ran. Conversely, ad agencies and media might find blue chip clients unable to pay bills because their accounting software has broken, or because their sales software has broken and they can't fill orders fast enough. or because they're having trouble tracking and ordering materials needed for manufacturing. Computerized just-in-time delivery systems can be a problem if the mainframe doesn't know what century it is.

Lack of vision has never proved so costly. To paraphrase a clichˇ, we were bytes wise and billions foolish. One can only wonder what short cut some industry is taking now that will cost us a few trillion in the future. We can hope this experience proves expensive enough that lessons are learned. Now that we have a price tag for the lack of vision, we might value vision enough to use it.

Copyright © 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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