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The year 2000 does not compute

duvall From Correspondent Jed Duvall
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON(CNN) -- On the calendar, January 1 marked the beginning of the year 1996. But for most computers, it marked simply the year 96. And in just under four years, at the end of 1999, humans will easily move ahead to 2000. Computers programmed to see the year in just two digits, however, will jump backward, to 00.

Some people in the computer field are forecasting trouble.

"We're seeing the most interest on things like banking, financial services, and the insurance industry," said IBM representative Linda Sanford. "Although I stress, it does go across all industries."

U.S. graphic Here's an example of how the difference could cause confusion. At two minutes after midnight in New York on January 1, 2000, a Easterner decides to mark the new year, the new century and (nay-sayers to the contrary) the new millennium by phoning a friend in California, where it is still 1999.

Unless the telephone company's computer is properly programmed before that night, that telephone bill will register a call lasting from the year 00 to the year 99. In other words, the New Yorker would be charged for a call 99 years long.

The date problem has been buried deep inside computer programs since the 1950s, when the fact that the "19" would someday have to be changed to "20" could be conveniently ignored.

Is there plenty of time for repair? Not for people who already are using computers to deal with situations that will carry into the next century -- such as trying to cut the annual federal deficit to zero by the year 2002, for instance.

"We would expect a number of applications to not only not function by January 1, 2000, but start to process and produce erroneous data," warned Devon Fischer of Mutual of Omaha. "We can't wait to fix it. We have to start addressing the problem now."


"We have to start addressing the problem now."

-- Devon Fischer of Mutual of Omaha
Fischer explains further -
(175K AIFF sound or 175K WAV sound)

Fischer is one of a number of computer specialists who find the situation to be much more serious than most people figure. "I don't think companies realize the magnitude of the problem," Fischer said.

Woman at computer The problem is both far reaching and costly. Virtually every large company and institution, as well as most personal computers made in the 1980s, have the glitch. Industry analysts claim they are being conservative when they say fixing the dates will cost between $300 billion and $600 billion.

One bright note, however, is that newer PCs and Macs are not affected by the problem.

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