Daniel Oldenbury remembers the first time he heard about the Millennium bug. It was last March, and he was staring out his office window at two feet of snow, suddenly feeling a little numb. Until then, the marketing manager for Wilift Truck Corporation had absolutely no idea that many of the world's computers could shut down on January 1, 2000.
"They're doing a lousy job of getting the word out," he said, after the effects of the bug were explained to him. Then he joked, "Well, I'm retiring in 1999, so I don't much care." But as he tees up near his Arizona retirement home that January day, he might be the only one who doesn't care.
What Exactly is Y2K? Until recently, computer programmers had not been thinking beyond the 20th century. All the programs they wrote assumed that all years began with the same two digits--1 and 9. Thus, the problem: At one second past midnight, on the first day of the new Millennium, computer clocks might not change to the year 2000.
There are two probable scenarios about what will happen next. Some computers will freeze like a block of ice, making all data and software inaccessible. In others, the clocks will change to 1900, making it impossible for users to share data, get on the Internet, or work on a network.
Glitches will materialize mysteriously. Not all of them will just pop up on January 1, 2000; they could occur throughout the year. Some specialists predict that the glitches could arise even as late as 2003. The bug's impact will affect every computer that is not Y2K-compliant, including computers used to handle air traffic control, hotel room reservations, function space allocation, environmental controls, travel reservations, and accounting functions.
As serious as it is, most executives "either are not aware of the Year 2000 problem or they've dumped it entirely in the laps of their MIS departments," says Corporate Meetings & Incentives' technology columnist Corbin Ball, CMP, vice president of HMR Associates, Bellingham, WA. To date, only one meeting industry association, the International Association of Exposition Managers, is tackling the issue and ran a special seminar on the subject at its June meeting.
Fortunately, most meeting industry suppliers are on top of the issue, and some are entering the final stages of rendering the bug helpless. In the airline industry, Northwest Airlines, KLM, and Lufthansa have announced that they would ground flights on January 1, 2000, if the Millennium bug had not been worked out of air traffic control and radar systems. This announcement, made in February, raised a few eyebrows, especially when reports from the General Accounting Office indicated that the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control computers might not be Y2K-compliant by then.
It turns out the concerns were premature. "Yes, we are concerned about compliance with the FAA," says Tom Browne, who is heading up an oversight committee for the Air Transport Association, in Washington, D.C. "Having said that, we also are working with the FAA and looking at its plans. The situation is not as dire as everyone once thought. The FAA has completed 8,000 hours of testing of its computers and not one of them has experienced a single Y2K failure." An industry report is expected to be ready by November.
Tom Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines, Fort Worth, TX, says that the airline's critical functions should be compliant by the middle of this year. He also noted that the airline is confident that the FAA will have its ducks in a row by January 1, 2000. "Our intent is to be flying in January 2000."
Hotels Making Headway On the hotel side, most companies have been tackling the Y2K issue for some time now. According to Karin Wacaser of the THISCO service division of Pegasus Systems Inc., Dallas, the company is in the process of running certification tests with its 100 hotel company customers, representing 26,000 properties in 150 countries. Hilton Hotel Corporation has been searching for its Y2K gremlins for more than 18 months. "There's a lot to do," says Joe Durocher, senior vice president and chief information officer. He notes that the company has begun to determine which of its computer systems are Y2K-compliant and to take steps to correct those that aren't.
Hilton is also contacting vendors and customers with whom it exchanges data. "We are keeping our eyes peeled for anomalies," says Durocher. "We also have received queries from customers who are asking how we plan to be Y2K-compliant."
Hyatt has also been working on compliance for two years, and all the chain's primary systems were expected to compliant by press time, according to Bob Bansfield, director of MIS, Hyatt Corporation, Chicago.
Incentive and travel firms are on the same track. Incentive giant Carlson Marketing Group has set up a global committee to analyze its compliance, and expects to have the problems solved by the year 2000, according to Jane Wallbridge, senior director of travel, Toronto. Mark Bondy, vice president of Weynad, Burk & Bondy, Traverse City, MI, notes that his company has all new computer hardware and is moving into a new airline computer reservation system, all Y2K-complaint. "We plan to review the existing applications late in 1998 to see if they have been upgraded to 2000 and make adjustments at that time," he says. "We also are in the process of converting to WorldSpan, which is on top of the year 2000 issue."
Y2K TERMS FOR DUMMIES Certification. The process by which a company attests that its computers are Y2K-compliant, which means that they have been tested to assure that they will function properly in the year 2000.
Clock. Each computer has a clock set to the current date. In "older" computers, the clocks are hard-wired so that the year always begins with two digits--1 and 9. When January 1, 2000 rolls around, some older computers will read the date as 1900 and others will freeze.
ISO. International Standards Organization. The ISO has set up Y2K standards to ensure that computers will operate effectively in the new Millennium. Bandage solutions usually aren't ISO-compliant. Exchanging data between a computer that is ISO-compliant and one that isn't could create a problem. What that problem is will depend on the computer, the software, and the bandage.
Y2K. Computerese for the expression the Year 2000.
A FIVE-STEP PROGRAM FIVE STEPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM POTENTIAL PROBLEMS 1 Abandon computers and read.Several books and periodicals address the Y2K problem in an understandable format (see "Do a Test Run? Or Read Up First?" on this page).
2 Get on the Internet.Check out the Web sites of major computer vendors, such as IBM and Microsoft. There are a number of other sites geared to just the Y2K problem (see "Do a Test Run? Or Read Up First?" on this page).
3 Talk to your organization's MIS people, as well as your hardware and software vendors.Ask if your equipment and software are compliant with ISO Y2K standards. Be aware that a solution for a general software program will not necessarily make corrections in hybrid software added at a later date, warns E.J. Siwek, a software designer and head of Meeting Professionals International's technical advisory committee.
4 Work with your attorneys to develop a questionnaire for suppliers.The questionnaire should determine when suppliers--hotels, convention centers, airlines, travel agencies, fulfillment houses, and housing bureaus--will be Y2K-compliant. If a supplier is not already tackling the issue, there could be problems down the line. Industry analysts anticipate a deluge of individuals and small companies bringing their computers to vendors next year. 5 Call again several months prior to your meeting to make sure that suppliers have become Y2K-compliant.
DO A TEST RUN? OR READ UP FIRST? The editors of InfoWorld recently collected a "ragtag fleet of PCs" and linked them into a network. There were IBM 486 clones and Compaq Deskpro 400's. The editors then installed an MS-DOS 6.22 operating system, reset the computers' clocks to just before midnight December 31, 1999, and waited for the Millennium. At the stroke of midnight, some computers worked, while others choked.
The computer-courageous can run similar tests on their own computers. It's actually easy. The most critical of steps: Back up the entire hard drive. Step two: Turn the computer's clock to 11:58 p.m., December 31, 1999, and wait. Step three: When the clock strikes midnight, is your computer operating? If it is, reboot. If it's still running, the computer is probably Y2K-compliant. If it's not working, you will need assistance in making it compliant.
If a self-test is not your style, there's plenty of information you can read before deciding what to do. Computer experts have praised the book, The Year 2000 Problem Solver: A Five-Step Disaster Prevention Plan (McGraw Hill, 1996). The magazines InfoWorld (www.infoworld.com) and ComputerWorld (www.computerworld.com) regularly publish features on the subject. SBT Accounting Systems (800-944-1000 or www.sbt.com) will provide free software (to any organization with more than five employees) that reads a computer's internal clock and determines how the machine handles the conversion. Another test is available from Greenwich Mean Time (www.gmt-2000.com). Other sites to check are www.righttime.com, www.mitre.org/research/y2k, and www.microsoft.com/cio/year.asp.