SUNDAY TIMES [London]: "Doomsday didn't come but the big bill did " : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Sunday, January 9, 2000


Doomsday didn't come but the big bill did

By Dipesh Gadher

When Jeremy Perron, a computer programmer, and his wife Angela traded in their home near Bath for a remote farmhouse on the Moray Firth in Scotland, they were bracing themselves for the worst excesses of the millennium bug.

Along with their children, Amber and Joseph, the couple set about digging a vegetable patch, erecting a wind turbine, installing a supply of fresh water and filling their cupboards with weeks' worth of provisions.

They tried to persuade their neighbours to do the same, explaining that the transition to the year 2000 would send computer systems crashing around the world.

The upshot would be widespread power failures, food shortages and, if things got really hairy, a nuclear disaster.

But on the morning of January 1, the Perrons woke up to find the world intact. The millennium bug made only a fleeting appearance amid the festivities at the stroke of midnight. Its impact was limited, to say the least.

In the run-up to Y2K, the Portman Building Society sent out statements notifying several hundred savers of the interest rate in January 1900. Two kidney dialysis machines at Monklands hospital in Airdrie - not in use at the time - suffered computer failures on the stroke of midnight. The problem was solved by technical staff using a manual override. A tide gauge at Portsmouth harbour failed and Aberdeen weather centre suffered a minor glitch on the night of December 31.

And that was pretty much it. Nothing even came close to last summer's fiasco at the passport agency when staff tried to upgrade a computer system that was already overloaded.

Up to #360 billion is believed to have been spent worldwide fighting the bug that never was. No wonder many people feel not just foolish, but conned.

Peter de Jager, a Canadian bug expert generally credited with starting the international bug fever with an article entitled Doomsday 2000, has received death threats from fanatics and disgruntled businessmen.

The prime minister of the Czech republic condemned the IT industry as deceitful and the Cuban press claimed the millennium bug was part of a capitalist conspiracy to boost computer sales. Anthony Finkelstein, professor of software at University College London, one of a handful of sceptics who warned that Y2K hysteria was running out of control, spent the week bathing in the warm glow of self-congratulation.

He believes that, in the wake of BSE, the government went overboard, investing millions in a worthless campaign that flew in the face of any rational risk assessment, culminating in the "ridiculous" Y2K booklet distributed to every home. "The political risk of doing otherwise was bigger than the cost of a massive public campaign," he said.

The government argues that it is the careful, lengthy - and expensive - preparation that has saved us from the millennium bug. But other countries, many of which spent next to nothing on prevention, escaped equally lightly.

Warning alarms were activated at two nuclear power plants in Japan seconds after midnight because of the malfunction of radiation monitoring equipment, but the problems posed no threat to safety. Some ticket vending machines failed.

In America, bases monitoring spy satellite data ceased functioning for more than 12 hours. Seven nuclear power stations also reported minor problems, as did two power stations in India.

In Italy, where a Y2K committee was not set up till January 1999 and worked in a spirit that one minister called "organised chaos", problems were encountered on ship-to-shore radio telephones. One faulty computer system added 100 years to some prison sentences.

Nobody suggests that the bug was non-existent; just that the reaction was out of proportion to the threat. Now the reckoning begins: the International Data Corporation, a Boston market research company, estimates that up to #46 billion was overspent on tackling the bug worldwide.

It puts the final millennium bug bill at #171 billion - a conservative figure if other sources are anything to go by. John Gantz, its chief policy officer, said: "The hype generated over Y2K came at a price in terms of the costs of contingency planning and overspending on fixing computer systems."

Small businesses are feeling particularly aggrieved at the amount of money they shelled out on "millennium compliance", which now looks to have been wasted. Some are even talking of suing IT consultants for bad advice, though legal fees make them reluctant to throw good money after bad.

So who profited from the millennium bug?

The most likely winners are the big computer services companies, such as IBM, Cap Gemini and Electronic Data Systems; general management consultancy firms, such as KPMG and Andersen Consulting; specialist software companies, such as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), a supplier of bug-checking software; and specialist IT consultants, including de Jager and Corporation 2000. Karl Feilder, president of GMT in Hampshire, turned his attention to the Y2K problem after selling his previous software venture to Microsoft in 1995.

"I realised it was going to be huge," he said. Employing 150 staff across 15 countries, GMT claims to be the world's leading supplier of millennium bug-checking software for PCs. Feilder enters the third millennium a happy man. GMT is now valued at #20m.

Another strategist likely to have made substantial sums out of the bug is Martyn Emery, director of Corporation 2000, an IT consultancy.He has advised the United Nations and, most recently, the government of Oman. He has also worked with Glaxo Wellcome and Shell.

Emery once claimed that his ambition was to become a "millenniumaire". With #20 billion spent by Britain alone, he will be far from the only one.


-- John Whitley (, January 09, 2000



-- John Whitley (, January 09, 2000.

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