BOSTON GLOBE: "News analysis: Specialists say preparation killed potential Y2K 'bug' "- worst we have to deal with is 'Inaccurate bills. Wrong orders. Late deliveries.' : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread


News analysis: Specialists say preparation killed potential Y2K 'bug'

By Peter J. Howe, Globe Staff, 1/2/2000

So, was Y2K the most overhyped phenomenon in 2,000 years?

Or did the diligence of a world preparing as if for war stave off the real danger of a cascading technological disaster?

With the once-dreaded year 2000 having arrived in time zone after time zone with virtually no millennium-bug chaos, it seems that the many predictions of computer meltdowns, driven by the shift to the date 01-01-00, could now be widely disparaged as Chicken Little nonsense. They may even be seen as a conspiracy perpetrated by self-interested vendors of technology.

The big caveat is that much potential Y2K damage might not become apparent until the business world goes back to work tomorrow, and perhaps not for days or weeks.

But the consensus yesterday of a cross-section of government officials and Y2K specialists seemed to be that the stunningly uneventful New Year's Eve really did reflect one of civilization's finer hours.

Years of planning, billions of dollars in investment, and unprecedented cooperation and information-sharing among nations and industries clearly paid off when New Year's Day arrived with seemingly no more glitches than any other.

In some ways, specialists said, the vast sense of anticlimax that greeted the arrival of the year 2000 reflected widespread misunderstanding of what Y2K was all about.

While many people viewed Y2K as potentially a small number of huge problems, technical experts understood that the real risk was of a huge number of Lilliputian problems that would bog down society for days or weeks. These efforts would be inconvenient, costly, and annoying, but in most cases probably far from matters of life and death. Media-fueled nightmares of crashing airplanes, plunging elevators, and states shivering in the dark were far off the mark.

If the ''millennium bug'' still has any life, it now looks as though it could linger as a chronic, low-grade virus.

Groton computer consultant David J. Hayes, whose car sports a well-bolted ''Y2K'' license plate, is a former chief information officer for several area companies. Hayes noted that ''the guy who invented the term Y2K said at one time that it's going to be death by 10,000 papercuts,'' Hayes said. ''It's going to be all small problems, but there are going to be a lot of them.''

''We've gone from the disaster scenario to the hassle scenario,'' said John Gantz, chief research officer with IDC Corp. of Framingham, which has been running ''Project Magellan'' to monitor Y2K problems around the world.

IDC now estimates that computer ''downtime'' connected to dealing with Y2K will cost the global economy $21 billion this year. Those impacts may not become clear until this week, because probably 85 percent of the world's computers were shut off Friday night, Gantz said.

While $21 billion is one of those numbers that sounds big, in context it represents barely 1/1,500th of the $32 trillion global economy. And while there will likely be widespread problems to fix, every society will be able to attack them in an environment where the basics of modern life - electricity, telephones, water supplies, traffic lights - seem to be functioning as well as they ever did.

''I'd have to say that it was massively overhyped,'' Gantz said of Y2K apocalypse scenarios. ''I believe the work had to be done, but everyone focused on the most dramatic possible outcomes of what could have happened. We always said Y2K will appear not as a flood, but as a lot of leaky basements.''

The true impact of Y2K will be felt as companies and government agencies deal with balky order processing systems, confused accounting spreadsheets, and screwed-up transaction records that may take a few minutes here and an hour there to fix.

Bruce Webster, cochairman of the Washington-based Year 2000 Group, said, ''Most Y2K errors are pretty dull. A program stops working or it makes a bad calculation. None of this means planes falling out of the sky or nuclear meltdowns.''

Atlanta telecommunications analyst Jeffrey Kagan said, ''It looks like the worst most of us will have to deal with is inconveniences and frustrations, not real problems. Inaccurate bills. Wrong orders. Late deliveries.''

What is likely to be lost in the finger-pointing over whether millions of people were unduly panicked about Y2K is that, given the stakes, officials had no choice but to take on the problem. Leaving, say, Belgium or the state of Ohio unremedied for Y2K as a test case for whether Y2K was really serious would have rightly been dismissed as an absurd option, given the risks and the interconnectedness of electric grids, telecommunications networks, and global trade.

Even President Clinton's top Y2K troubleshooter, John Koskinen, gave voice yesterday to the rhetorical question now on the minds of many: ''Has this all been hype?''

No way, Koskinen insisted. Rather, the smooth arrival of New Year's Day from Auckland to Honolulu reflected the governments' and industry's success in handling ''the biggest management challenge the world has had in 50 years.

''We should not underestimate the nature of the problem that was initially there,'' Koskinen said. ''Had the effort not been made, had the money not been spent, we would be in a very different situation.''

Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which helped coordinate monitoring efforts for state agencies that spent $103 million preparing, said, ''I personally wouldn't have wanted to be the guy who said, `Nothing is going to happen. We'll just keep our fingers crossed.' The potential was catastrophic.''

And it also bears remembering that Y2K anxiety was in some ways a luxury of prosperous nations. ''Y2K makes no difference in Nigeria,'' said Ayodele Adewale, celebrating the new year in the streets of Lagos. ''We do not normally have light or water, so if we do now then it must be a bonus.''

Finally, some think the fact that Y2K came and went without disasters may also prove to be a turning point for many people in industrialized, technological societies who feel uncertain about their growing dependence on computers. Even as they yield countless benefits for people's work and leisure, digital systems often inspire mistrust, or a sense that humans are not fully in control.

''The world is going to feel more comfortable with technology going forward,'' said Gary Beach, publisher of 135,000-circulation CIO Magazine, a Framingham-based specialty publication for business information executives.

''Technology did not fail us in the last 24 hours, and it didn't fail us because of the human aspect, the unbelievable work by men and women who faced these issues and solved them. This was one of the best examples of human cooperation in the history of mankind.''

Yvonne Abraham, Mac Daniel, Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Richard Saltus, and Aaron Zitner of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services also was used.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 1/2/2000.
) Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


-- John Whitley (, January 03, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ