The Sunday Times (UK)

4th May, 1997

by Frank Kane

Business 'too late to avoid havoc in 2000'

AT LEAST three quarters of British businesses have left it too late to defuse the "millennium time bomb" that threatens to wreak havoc in the world's computers in 2000, according to the expert appointed by the government to advise on the problem.

Robin Guenier, head of the Department of Trade and Industry-sponsored Taskforce 2000, told The Sunday Times that companies, especially small-and medium-sized businesses, and giant public-sector organisations such as the National Health Service, had only 15 months to change their computer systems to avoid disaster at the end of 1999.

"Many of them will not be able to install and test new systems in time. The urgent need now is for government to prioritise those areas essential to everyday life," he said.

The problem will arise because most of the timing mechanisms essential to running most computers have been programmed with only the last two digits of the date, taking the 19 prefix for granted.

Computers will be unable to read the new date with a 20 prefix, with potentially disastrous consequences. The problem is made worse by embedded time chips, which control machinery from lifts to satellites. These also read only the last two digits but are difficult to access.

"I am now going to advise the government that we cannot expect to do the job comprehensively in the time left, so we have to set our priorities. We have to fix the things that matter and make do with the ones that are not absolutely essential," Guenier said.

He is sticking to an earlier estimate that the total cost to the country will be more than £30 billion, despite reports strongly denied that he exaggerated the figure to put pressure on the government. However, he now believes that the figure is meaningless because so many organisations have left it too late.

"A pound unspent now will turn into many pounds that have to be spent later. The private financial and industrial sector can afford it, and some companies are quite well advanced. But the public sector simply will not have the resources to do it. It should be a major priority for the new government," he said.

Guenier estimates that an extra 260,000 specialists will be needed to solve the problem, but there is not sufficient time to hire and train them.

The "millennium time bomb" will affect every aspect of modern life, from simple financial transactions such as automated payment of salaries, to the electronics that run sophisticated navigational systems and national defence networks. Last week, British Telecom admitted there was a risk of collapse in world telecommunications because some countries had not begun to tackle the problem.

© Copyright The Times Newspapers Ltd 1997

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