The 'nothing-happened' Y2K bug – how the IT industry worked overtime to save world's computers
...though bonkers conspiracies on solving date-field problem never died down
Retro Tech Week Forty years ago, both Jerome and Marilyn Murray saw their brainchild reach the light of day. In 1984, their book, Computers in Crisis, was published, becoming the first authoritative guide to the Millennium Bug coding problem, which, in the final year of the century, would consume media, political and business attention.
Today, more than 20 years after the date-field imposed deadline passed, the Millennium Bug — or Y2K problem — still gets a mixed reception. While many in the industry see it as a job well done — or at least adequately done — it has also become a byword for the over-reach of experts.
The latter perspective was epitomized by US senator John Cornyn, who in 2022 took to then-Twitter to speak his brains.
He pointed towards a consultant named Peter de Jager, who in 1993 wrote a three page piece titled "Doomsday 2000," one of the "first major articles to warn about what would become known as the 'Y2K' bug."
Cornyn added: "The world spent hundreds of billions of dollars to reprogram computers so that they could accept dates beyond 1999.
For about a year afterwards, we were collecting Y2K failures. I went to the gas station on January first, and I filled up with gas and my receipt had a wrong day. I still got gas, so who cares? We fixed some things on failure. But the big stuff, you couldn't have fixed that on failure
"On Jan. 1, 2000, when worldwide meltdown was widely forecast by doomsayers like de Jager, absolutely nothing happened," Cornyn stated in his seemingly unanswerable gotcha tweet, where he tagged the Wall Street Journal for good measure.
Cornyn's outburst may be symptomatic of a breed of self-righteous populism to take root on both sides of the Atlantic in the latter years of the last decade, but it has been strongly refuted by computer experts who worked on the problem at the time, including our readers.
Matthew Hotle, Gartner distinguished VP analyst, led the IT advisory firm's Year 2000 Strategies research team from 1997 until it was disbanded in 2000.
He tells The Register: "In the 1997 to 1998 timeframe, it was important for us to mobilize our clients and get them to understand that it was not that hard. There were two ways to fix it. You could either do date expansion, or you could window it."
What went wrong
The Y2K problem stemmed from programmers of systems built in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s employing two-digit fields to store the current year – storing 1987, for example, as 87 rather than the full four-digit 1987, either due to memory constraints or perhaps laziness.
When the date ticks over to the new millennium, a vulnerable system returns, in the above case, to 1900 rather than step into 2000: The year as stored in memory wraps from 99 to 00, and is interpreted as 1900 rather than 2000.
As for the fixes: Date expansion converted two-digit year values to four-digit fields – so 2001 would be stored as 2001, not 01 – and required coding and testing. Windowing was easier: The two-digit date was retained, and it was assumed to refer to the 2000s in the application for dates early in the century. So 87 would mean 1987 but 00 would be 2000.
Either way, it was not technically complex, but very tedious work, Hotle says. "The first year-and-a-half was trying to get people motivated, and that's a difficult thing when they have lots of business projects to do and other things to keep the business running. Then, in the 1998 to 2000 timeframe, we pivoted over to saying we were seeing progress."
While Garter was still advising clients to set up command centers in case something went wrong, the analyst was reasonably sure the most serious problems were being fixed and those that were left could be fixed on failure.
But just as the advisors were thinking most businesses were on top of the problem and a steady-as-she-goes approach would see off the worst-case scenarios, the media went into overdrive, because who doesn't like a good scare story with a Millennial deadline? Governments at the time were launching campaigns, partly for wanting to be seen to do something and partly for fear that smaller businesses were unaware of the problem.
In 1999, the BBC reported Qantas warning that the Millennium bug could lead to its services being disrupted over the New Year period, although the Australian airline later reassured the Australian Stock Exchange it would “only fly if it is safe to do so."
Following the launch of the UK government's Action 2000 group — and the recruitment of 20,000 "bug busters" to help companies correct the problem — the country's then-prime minister Tony Blair said the campaign had come a long way in a year, but there was "no room for complacency."
Later, the leader of the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett, told MPs there was no guarantees the Millennium bug would "not cause disruption within government."
In the US, John Hamre, the-then deputy secretary of defense, was quoted as saying, "The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Niño and there will be nasty surprises around the globe."
John Koskinen took charge of then US president Bill Clinton's response unit on Y2K. He wrote in 2020 that — despite reports there had been little disruption on the data switchover — a number of significant failures occurred. The Defense intelligence satellite system went down, the low-level wind shear detectors at major US airports failed, and the Japanese lost the ability to monitor the safety systems for their nuclear power plants, he said. And yet, "the theme immediately emerged on New Year's Day of 2000 that this had all been an overreaction to a problem that didn't really exist," he wrote.
Garter's Hotle tell us that while the most serious problems were avoided, the code that slipped through the net did cause glitches, suggesting the problem was real enough.
"For about a year afterwards, we were collecting Y2K failures. I went to the gas station on January first, and I filled up with gas and my receipt had a wrong day. I still got gas, so who cares? We fixed some things on failure. But the big stuff, you couldn't have fixed that on failure."
Tinfoil hats - it was a '90s thing, too
While conspiracy theorists today might think the world was duped into over reacting to the Millennium bug problem, at the time it was the other way around. There was a hardcore group that refused to be assured that the bulk of the most important Y2K fixes had been done.
"Between 1998 and 2000, there were people on messaging boards naming me saying, 'Oh, you guys are saying that this is going to be a fix on failure and that's crazy. The world is going to come to an end' and so on. There were a lot of the same people that would fit into the conspiracy theory world today. People were saying they would move off-grid, build a house with solar panels, and all this other wonderful stuff. And there are people that did that," Hotle says.
The Y2K bug became such a fly-trap for eccentric thinking it spawned a whole genre of literature. Artist Perry Chen launched his project, "Computers in Crisis," in 2014. To commemorate the publication of the book of the same name, it catalogs some of the weird and wonderful publications to make it into print.
The book book archive houses such treasures as Lie Y2K — Why the Alleged End-of-the-World Year-2000 Computer Crisis is Really Just a Hoax, Y2 Kitchen — the Joy of Cooking in Crisis, and Millennium Bug — Gateway to a Cashless Society. There's a whole section of religious texts, including Y2K Trojan Horse — the Bible says volumes about The United States of America, The Y2K Millennium Bug — A Balanced Christian Response, Y2K = 666, and Spiritual Survival During the Y2K Crisis.
Why conspiracy theorists wouldn't leave it alone
Whether they believed the Millennium bug was a hoax, or a sign of the end of the world, conspiracy theorists are attracted to big events, says Nottingham University assistant professor in social psychology Daniel Jolley.
"It's about being suspicious of institutions and those in power and viewing the world through this lens of conspiracy," he tell El Reg.
The clinching factor is the failure to adapt views according to new evidence. "When there is evidence in front of you, you still digest that evidence through the lens of conspirativism. You're not really taking in areas where there is consensus, you're saying 'that's what they would say, I’m not endorsing it'," says Jolley, who specializes in studying conspiracy theories.
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The belief in a conspiracy can become wrapped up in an individual's identity, friendships and community, such that it is difficult to challenge with evidence alone, he says.
While Hotle has seen conspiracy theorists say the Millennium bug was both understated and overblown, he's proud of what the team achieved, even if he gets tired of talking about it.
"When they asked me about this, I'm like, do I really want to go back? Do I really want to do this?" he says.
At the same time, he can't help pointing out there may be Y2K bugs lurking in code still. Some of the dates for windowing fields were picked in the 2020s and 2030s. The assumption at the time was that the software would be completely replaced when that date came around, but that was true of the Millennium bug in the first place.
As ever, the truth is out there. ®