Y2K . . . one year and counting

Y2K . . . one year and counting

With less than a year to go, Tamara Plakalo looks at possible outcomes of the step into the great unknown, and what steps, if any, that can still be taken to minimise fallout.

If you never thought of using hyperbolic speech to describe 01/01/2000, now is the time to start because - for the next 338 days or so - this date will be dangling over your head like the sword of Damocles.

You can blame this unfortunate hyperbole on Richard Nixon, as it was during his administration that the US Government standardised the YY/MM/DD date format, effectively planting the seed from which an ordinary January 1st grew into a universally feared chip-and-data saboteur known as the Millennium bug.

Then again, Fortran, Cobol, Algol and Basic all existed prior to Nixon's time, and back then computer memory was expensive and programmers were eager to create shortcuts in order to save space.

But apportioning blame is not going to help the millenarian matters, since - whether you like the idea of fencing with a subversive computer bug or not - this is exactly what most of us will be doing for the rest of 1999.

The problem is that fencing with an unknown opponent rarely wins any medals. And, let's face it, we've never dealt with anything like the year 2000 bug before.

Needless to say, the consequences of possible system failures caused by the inability of programs to recognise year "00" cannot be predicted. However, when one takes into account the fact that 40 per cent of businesses (most of them small-to-medium sized) have not even begun preparations for the year 2000 date changeover and a significant number of those will not manage to achieve the timely compliance, a depressing picture starts to emerge.

This is why Ivar Stanelis, director of Adelaide-based Saratoga Distribution, feels very strongly about the shilly-shallying that has, according to him, characterised both businesses' and the IT channel's approaches to Y2K compliance until now. In a poignant j'accuse, Stanelis lays the blame for the potential problems at the feet of the latter, branding resellers as "remiss" for not bringing a variety of existing Y2K solutions to the attention of small businesses or even home users.

"The reseller channel should, in my opinion, be proactive about the things that matter, and they are not - they are only reacting, which I think is wrong," he opines. Yet, far from being pessimistic about the outcome of such a slipshod approach, Stanelis is adamant there are enough good Y2K solutions around to allow businesses to deal with the bug successfully, as long as they embark on finding those solutions now. That, though, as the Adelaide businessman asserts, might prove to be another catch-22 situation.

"There is certainly enough information out there for both businesses and the channel to be getting into Y2K, but one seems to be waiting for the other, and the other seems to be waiting for the first," he laments. Moreover, with only 11 months to go, it is fair to assume that those who have not sought to rectify the problem so far might barely have enough time to apply temporary measures before the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.

The question is where to start, and the answer depends on who you ask.

While the Y2K bug might affect anything from hardware and operating systems to Internet browsers, Stanelis advises the late starters and those who will provide them with Y2K solutions that it is data that needs to be taken care of first.

"Data is the only component in the system that cannot be replaced and so it has to be cleansed. Therefore, any solution that cleanses data is where people should start."

Of course, Stanelis' company has just the solution (it is called Biperscan Remediator), but he can be forgiven for mentioning it, since he bolsters his assertion with what appears to be a valid argument: "Problems will arise when companies that themselves are compliant start receiving data from other companies or remote users which are not, and that's why people should think about cleansing tools to start with."

The advice seems reasonable considering that there are hundreds of Y2K tools available on the market. Furthermore, the time for implementing and testing solutions is short and businesses' and resellers' resources scarce. At the same time, the fact that those tools come with varying degrees of usefulness and that, according to Stanelis, no one is stocking any of them unless they are "brand-names" anyway, poses a big problem for the channel, already struggling to meet both the demand and the deadline.

Adding to the headache is a shortage of skilled IT professionals ready to jump on the steaming Y2K train at short notice, which is not only pushing the cost of labour (and thus the cost of the overall solution) up, but is also forcing resellers to knock back many of those who come to them desperate for a Y2K remedy.

"We are under a lot of pressure," complains Matthew Parker, director of Brisbane software house SunData, whose business doubled in 1998 mainly due to high demand for Y2K solutions. Ironically, while Parker expects his company to double its business again in 1999, his ambitious plan may fall through if the skills shortage that has seen SunData constantly advertise for new employees for the last six months does not ease in the very near future.

"We know that there are a lot of businesses that still haven't implemented equipment and software they will need to have in place before the year 2000. The issue for us is that we are not going to have enough resources and time for the job we have to do and we will need a lot of very qualified people and a lot of support from our business partners in order to be able to provide them with the solutions they need," Parker says.

Unfortunate situation

But, the simple truth is that neither the channel, nor any association or government body involved in raising awareness or solving the Y2K problem, can guarantee the positive outcome of this unfortunate situation. In fact, skill shortages or not, the bug is likely to remain with us for awhile, which has prompted the Federal Government to push for the introduction of a Good Samaritan Act that will encourage greater disclosure of facts relating to businesses' and manufacturers' readiness for the problematic date changeover and protect them against litigation at the same time.

Ideally, the legislation should incite companies to openly discuss whether or not certain products or a company's operations are Y2K compliant. It should also afford some relaxation of the Trade Practices Act for year 2000 related issues that would otherwise result in liability claims being made against the negligent Y2K product and service providers, as, under sections 52 and 53 of the Act, companies can be sued for misleading or deceptive conduct or for making false representations about the standard of goods and services. In reality, however, the Good Samaritan Act (likely to be introduced in February) might not live up either to its name or the channel's expectations.

According to Jamie Nettleton, a partner at Sydney-based law firm Norton, Smith & Co, "a whole lot of difficulites" are inherent in the Y2K Good Samaritan effort and, even though he has not seen the draft legislation yet, Nettleton makes this assumption based on US experiences where a similar act has already been introduced.

"I have my doubts about whether this legislation is really going to be effective," he says.

"Certainly, it may encourage discussion on Y2K, but the whole idea is for traders to make statements that will be completely accurate [in presenting] a company's [Y2K compliance situation]. The difficulty is that the legislation is going to relax the principle that statements made must be completely true and accurate. Consequently, people affected by the inaccuracy of those statements will not be able to take action unless they are being made in good faith. But, whether they were made in good faith will be up to lawyers to decide."

On the other hand, the legislation is likely to offer only limited protection that will not shield Y2K goods and services providers from claims made against them on the grounds of negligence. In that, the Good Samaritan Act is certain to be a double-edged sword and one with some very sharp edges too.

Then again, avoiding sharp edges and loosely suspended cutting objects is the whole idea of the sword of Damocles metaphor used earlier to describe the problem that 01/01/00 has placed in front of a technology-dependent humanity, which is only now experiencing its first serious bouts of millenarian panic (despite the fact that date-based technology problems might arrive much earlier than expected). For example, on 9/9/99 some computers may start reading this palindrome number as a program termination command.

But, if you really want to know what the 1st of January 2000 is going to be like, you don't have to wait for the Y2K Good Samaritans' tell all to get a glimpse.

Take it from Stanelis: "I'm not going to fly on January 1st next year, but I'm also not going to do any of that Armageddon stuff either!" Now, he is your friendly reseller, so he should know! And if he doesn't, well, there are always those sections of the Trade Practices Act.

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