Help needed

Somebody has sat down and figured it out. If every computer engineer in the world sat down right now and worked just on the millennium bug, and nothing else, we could all make ourselves millennium compliant… by about the year 2008.’

These are the words of Richard Coppel, chief executive of Ninety Nine 2000, the software group that has produced Prove It 2000, the UK’s best selling diagnostic programme for IBM compatible PCs to tackle this looming and potentially massive problem.

Having admitted that the IT industry cannot solve the problem in its current state, Coppel puts forward a persuasive argument for a combination of self-help and Government intervention as a way of taking things forward.

On the DIY level, he is very much talking his own book. Prove It 2000 does allow even the most technophobic computer user to address the issue on their PC. But more of that later.

At Government level, Coppel joins a host of industry specialists who are arguing for a more concerted line from the mandarins in Whitehall, Brussels and about as far up the bureaucratic chain as you can go.

‘Personally, I’m in favour of as little regulation as possible, no regulation wherever it’s possible. But the scale of the year 2000 problem is such that someone in Government does need to be leading the way,’ he says, adding that the ‘free market’ approach of leaving it to industry will simply confuse.

First, those at risk will be confronted with messages promoting a range of products rather than the millennium threat in itself. And second, it will encourage the already widely-held suspicion that this is all about the IT industry finding a way to sell truckloads of ‘unnecessary’ new hardware and software by the back door.

‘Unless somebody really is making the point, you also have the people who think nothing is going to happen, that everything is being overrated. We’re all in this together, they’ll say, so we are bound to figure out some way around the problem , he argues.

‘Well, I’ll agree that I don’t pay much attention to the scare stories aircraft falling out of the sky on the stroke of midnight, hospital equipment failing, the Internet having a complete breakdown but you look at some of the tests we have already run and there are some real threats here.’

Such tests included simulating the date change on advanced computer-controlled production lines the lines shut down. Other tests meant that electronic banking programmes crashed and spreadsheets being used for projections beyond the millennium produced nonsense.

‘We’ve seen cases where a company with an advanced ordering system has sent out nagging letters to companies not due to deliver until 2001, saying today that they are 90-odd years overdue and could they do something about it, please!’ says Coppel.

The need for political intervention is also underlined, he suggests, by the IT industry’s fears of litigation, and the parallel belief that if a company’s systems do collapse, those affected will be able to seek redress in the courts.

‘The home of the computer industry is still the US, and the whole litigation culture there is deny everything or, at least, admit as little as possible. So all the companies that could be providing the most detailed information are encouraged to keep quiet.

‘But let’s say that the courts decide that the manufacturers are liable though I’ve got serious doubts about that anyway. The legal system will quickly be clogged up. You could be talking years before the case comes up and you receive any compensation. For a small or even a medium-sized company that has suffered a catastrophic failure and lost a huge amount of business, that will not be much of a help. The business could already have gone under as a result,’ says Coppel.

Even the terminology used to offer year 2000 security to firms upgrading or buying new hardware and software is not necessarily that helpful.

‘The phrase everybody is using is millennium compliant, but what exactly does that mean? We’ve asked some lawyers and they said that, in fact, it is pretty meaningless. It is not a recognised legal term, certainly. Our advice says that what companies need to be doing, if they are getting some form of indemnity from an IT supplier, is make sure that it includes the words date dependent. Now, I can make that pretty simple point but, again, it is something that really needs to be coming from a recognised authority. I don’t see that kind of thing happening at the moment,’ he says.

However, a call from Coppel’s company for a windfall tax to help fund the cost of meeting the millennium problem already appears to have fallen on deaf ears at the Treasury. He is disappointed, but for now would settle for just a more active promotional role from the Labour administration as a necessary start.

Against this background, Coppel can at least claim that his own product includes a fix that can be applied to networks or individual PCs.

Prove It 2000 tests the validity of the data from and the relationship between the three critical areas of hardware that supply the computer with its date and time: the realtime clock (RTC), the basic input/output system (BIOS) and the operating system (OS).

The main problem it is likely to encounter is an RTC that operates on only a two-digit year, with the century prefix fixed at ’19’, so that when the century rolls over the computer could think it is instead 1900 or even 1980. Other possible glitches exist at the BIOS and OS levels which are also checked. Similarly, the program runs a leap-year test to make sure that February 2000 gets its 29th day.

So far, so good. But Prove It’s next advantage is that it includes a program TSR which will force the correct date rollover without the need to upgrade the BIOS or RTC, as is usually the case where problems are detected. This will not, it should be noted, fix software that also runs on a two-digit date system: there it remains largely up to the user to check things out with the suppliers, but the most critical issue is at least dealt with.

For Coppel and his colleagues, the development of the single user pack available generally and the more project management orientated multi-user edition has paid dividends, with the company signing up clients as diverse as the Ministry of Defence, Philips and Tulip Computers.

The program has also been specified by ICL as part of its Dateproof2000 Self Help pack, launched last month for IT dependent businesses with between 100 and 350 employees. For £5,000, its clients will also get a step-by-step guide on ensuring systems are year 2000 ready, a training workshop, access to a phone helpline and online Internet help services, and accompanying videos, planners and literature.

Prove It 2000, meanwhile, will shortly move into a new iteration Prove It 2020 for businesses with 20 computers and above. It will be based on work the company has done with major bespoke clients and include some of their most popular extra requests, such as options to install the program over a network or at each individual PC on that network. It will also monitor changes in software and hardware upgrades that may introduce year 2000 problems after the original check.

However, one of the interesting aspects will be the option to download data to a secure off-network site after the millennium, to avoid any problems that do not immediately come to light on 1 January 2000.

‘Our experience also points to the possibility of creeping errors, particularly in databases, that may not become apparent for some time after the date change. The off-site option is intended to give companies the opportunity to go back and correct potentially vital data, if this happens,’ explains Coppel.

As this work continues, Coppel seeks to point out that he is not looking for the Government to make a market for him. ‘There are already enough people taking this problem seriously enough to keep me busy until 2000. We can keep taking it forward and selling the software as things stand.’

And, indeed, given the program’s ease of use even one famous ‘my PC is a word processor and nothing more’ colleague was able to upgrade his hardware in less than an hour he has a point.