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Computing
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The year 2000 bug is here and America is cashing in.

By CNN San Francisco Bureau Chief Greg Lefevre

April 30, 1998
Web posted at: 4:26 PM EDT (1626 GMT)

In this column:

All Jeff Knollmiller wanted to do was see a movie, "As Good As It Gets." The best he could get was a refusal by the online ticket seller.

"When it came time to enter the expiration date of my credit card," he said, "I entered '00.' That's the expiration date - the year 2000. That's not an acceptable entry."

A Los Angeles law firm has 15 attorneys racking up the billable hours advising companies how to avoid being sued.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "total costs associated with year 2000 litigation will reach $100 billion nationwide. That represents the largest chunk of the $277 billion (estimated) for overall year 2000 costs."

The year 2000 bug happens when older computer systems read only the last two digits of the date and think it's the year 1900, refusing the order or canceling the transaction.

It started in the 1950's when computer memory was so precious a commodity that everything was pared to the minimum. Dates were done in six digits: two for the day, two for the month, and two for the year. Forty years ago, none of the engineers worried about whether the software (punchcards) would be around at the turn of the century. At that time, the year ‘00’ probably meant 1900. Many of the databases dealt with information that included folks born in 1900.

There's blood in the legal water

So while some companies are rushing to fix their systems and/or software, others are already dodging legal bullets.

For example, in Silicon Valley, software giant Symantec was sued over a 2-year-old version of its Norton Anti-Virus software. CEO Gordon Eubanks says he knows the how and why of the lawsuit.

"The lawyers are looking for a business opportunity, and they see year 2000 as an area where perhaps they can continue to get revenue streams by suing companies and pressuring them into settling."

Eubanks' reference to "continue" is about shareholder lawsuits that showered down on Silicon Valley companies during the volatile days when prices rose and fell. Attorneys from the firm Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes and Lerach filed a lot of those suits. They're in on three year 2000 suits already, including one against Symantec.

"If they fix it, there is no lawsuit," says Reed Kathrein of Milberg Weiss. "If they offer a fix, there is no lawsuit.”

Eubanks is especially angry because the software in fact does work after 2000. "It will catch viruses," he says, "as the clock turns over to the year 2000."

What it won't do, without some extra typing, is keep an accurate log. But the version in question is already two years old and has been supplanted by a newer one.

Is That Enough For a Lawsuit?

Kathrein says yes. He believes the threat of lawsuits truly spurs companies to action, that they don't seem motivated to move unless the legal sword hangs over them. "If software manufacturers and computer manufacturers act responsibly, they have nothing to fear."

Preventive lawmaking

The software industry is prowling the halls of the California Legislature in Sacramento pushing laws to limit liability for year 2000 bugs. So far, they have no takers, but they're still trying.

Some companies like Symantec regularly publish year 2000 updates on their Web sites. But John Sullivan of the aptly-named Association for California Tort Reform says openly addressing year 2000 bugs is an admission of guilt that the suing attorneys will pounce on in court.

"With the threat of mass tort legislation, of class-action lawsuits, a lot of companies are prohibited from freely communicating to their customers what needs to be done to make the software work right."

That certainly has not deterred the biggies like Microsoft, Apple, Symantec and others who regularly post updates and bug fixes.

The legal tangles of the Y2K bug remind me of the "drain the swamp" analogy.

How much of Symantec's time and money is being diverted from its year 2000 efforts to fend off the legal challenge? Or are its Y2K efforts truly being accelerated by Milberg Weiss's nipping at its legal heels?

By the way, Knollmiller did get to see the flick.

The ticket clerk manually entered his credit card information.

Surf on....

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