February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Bad Date February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998
Bad Date

Do your computer systems have an appointment with fate? How to prepare for the Year 2000...


The champagne flows, a new millennium begins and the world is filled with optimism. Everyone is light-hearted, if a little hungover, at work on Monday, Jan. 3, 2000, until they realize that all the computers seem to think it's Wednesday, Jan. 3, 1900.

Oh, so this is the Year 2000 problem techies were talking about years ago...

Even experts who have been working to avoid this type of scenario for years expect glitches at the turn of the millennium. The simple reason for the meltdowns: Many older hardware and software packages were not designed to make the switch from the 1900s to the 2000s. To make matters worse for the computer doctors of the world, 2000 is a leap year.

It may not sound like a meeting planning problem -- but it certainly has the potential to be one. Every event depends upon date-related computer programs that could cause troubles on that day. Rooms are booked through general reservation systems and stored in the hotel's database; event schedules go through the hotel's catering database; registrations and speaker schedules are stored on your hard drive or networked among your colleagues. In short, you could be ringing in the year 2000 with headaches caused by more than just champagne.


The nightmare started out as a space- and time-saving device in the early days of computer development. Nearly every company creating operating systems or programs that kept track of the current date or the date a file was created used a two-digit field to indicate the year (i.e., 1997 was entered as 97). That was two fewer numbers to be logged into the computer's memory and two fewer numbers the data processor had to key in.

As people began entering dates after 2000, many programs recognized "00" as 1900 instead of 2000, and a subtle panic spread through the information technology industry.

Think of the hundreds of computers in an average office building -- they may control the heating and air-conditioning system, security system and elevators. Computers are networked within the building and to a satellite office hundreds of miles away; they control the phone system and store the company's Web site. Now imagine checking every computer worldwide to see which pieces of hardware and software will roll over to the new millennium with no problem and which will need to be fixed or replaced.

"The way it's going now, we're going to have a very interesting situation on Jan. 1, 2000," says Bob Cohen, vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America, which has been offering education about the Year 2000 problem since 1995. "Fewer than 1 percent of companies and organizations have completed their conversions, and there's going to be a large percentage of software that won't convert in time."

Cohen predicts that most large companies will focus on the computers and programs that are essential to their daily business. "But building a fence around what's most important becomes a large undertaking," he adds. "Chances are there will be errors and disruptions."

SURFING FOR SOLUTIONS Find out more about Year 2000 issues at these Internet sites.
  • The Information Technology Association of America (www.itaa.org/year2000.htm), represents 11,000 information and technology industry members. The Web site defines the issue and offers a newsletter, updates on congressional hearings and more.
  • The Year 2000 Information Center (www.year2000.com) keeps a running count of how long we have to fix the problem. It also offers articles, compliance information, news and links.
  • The U.S. government's Year 2000 Information Directory (www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/mks/yr2000/y201toc1.htm), has similar information.
  • IBM has a Year 2000 guide and more at (www.ibm.com/year2000/).
  • Apple (macos.apple.commacos/ 2000.html) describes how the Year 2000 problem affects its computers and Macintosh software packages.
  • Microsoft has seemingly endless pages devoted to the Year 2000 problem. Go to (www.microsoft.com/cio/year.asp) to start your research.
  • * S.B.


    With less than two years to go, most businesses -- large or small -- are feverishly trying to bring their systems into Year 2000 compliance.

    The hospitality business is no exception. For Hilton Hotels Corp., all-new equipment is the answer. "We are installing a new system that will be implemented by the end of 1998 or beginning of 1999 that will be fully compliant for transient as well as group and corporate reservations, including sales and catering," says Joe Durocher, Hilton's senior vice president and chief information officer. Other hotel companies, too, are evaluating and updating their systems.

    At the airlines, where computers control reservations systems, flight decks and communications, a whole lot of scurrying is going on. United Airlines has a task force looking into the elements that need upgrading -- and evaluating some 40,000 computers.

    At KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, "We already are in the process of transferring our systems and plan to have them ready in time," says spokesperson Odette Fodor. "But we don't know how the world is going to meet the problem. It may be beyond our control, in which case we will not fly." In other words, if the air traffic control system needs tinkering or the ground tracking systems aren't ready, KLM would consider keeping planes on the ground until they're up and running. But Fodor doesn't think such a situation would last very long: "I think that would happen that one day only."

    Hilton's Durocher also casts a wary eye on the outside world: "We as a hotel company do not have 100 percent assurances that the [reservations systems] will be compliant. We're trying to get assurances from them, but sometimes they're not totally forthright."

    NO WORMS AT APPLE The Year 2000 problem has never troubled the Apple Computer folks in Cupertino, Calif. Russell Brady, a spokesperson for the company, says, "We always recognized that there would be computing going on after 12/31/99, so we created an operating system that could handle it. It was a no-brainer, really."

    The only software that will give Mac users problems are programs developed by companies who used their own custom date and time utility packages instead of Apple's tools. Adds Brady, "If developers have written their programs following our guidelines, the application should be fine." * S.B.


    What can you do? Take an active interest in the computers you touch. PCs with Pentium processors should be fine, but those with the older 386 or 486 processing chips may need upgrading. Call the manufacturer and ask. Call the companies that produced each piece of date-related software you use (calendars, word processors, spreadsheets, etc.) and ask if their software is compliant. If it isn't, ask what you have to do to bring it up to speed.

    Many meetings packages like MeetingTrak and Meeting Matrix are fine as long as you have the latest versions, because they are developed with Year 2000-compliant tools. Call the software developer and ask if that's the case with the package you use.

    "Assume that you might have a problem and check to see that you don't," advises Ken Sayers, a spokesperson for IBM in Somers, N.Y. "If your software is classified as nonready, you may need to upgrade or convert the files, which will take some time." Start now. *

    NEW YEAR'S DAY OR DOOMSDAY? Some worst-case scenarios for 12:00:00 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000:
  • The cockpit computer in an airplane hasn't been upgraded and the flight is grounded.

  • Air traffic control grinds to a halt.
  • Traffic-light systems shut down, resulting in accidents and gridlock.
  • The system for the heating, airconditioning and elevator in your apartment building goes haywire.
  • The security system at your office starts scrambling data and you can't get in.
  • Your long-distance service isn't ready; your calls won't go through.
  • Your ATM card doesn't work.
  • Your super-sophisticated, computer-operated car won't start.
  • Your favorite Web sites are suddenly unavailable.
  • You draw information from an old database to fill in a registration form for an upcoming meeting and mess up the entire new database.
  • Could they happen? Sure. Will they? Probably not. But we won't know until Jan. 1, 2000. * S.B.

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