Computer experts try to explain why Y2K bug's bite wasn't worse

The Wichita Eagle newspaper, January 9, 2000
By New York Times News Service

Whether it is with scorn, anger or resignation, most computer experts and year 2000 program managers brush off suggestions that they overreacted to the Y2K threat, that they were taken in by computer companies and consultants positioned to profit from fear.

Still, like the skeptics, many wonder: How did countries that started so late -- and appeared to do so little -- manage to enter 2000 as smoothly as nations like the United States and Britain that got an early jump?

"That question is plaguing all of us, although some people won't admit it," said Maggie Parent, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's representative to Global 2000, an international banking group formed to coordinate and stimulate year 2000 work. "We expected there to be some significant blowouts."

Japan, China, Italy and Venezuela showed up as high-profile question marks in various studies last year. Paraguay's year 2000 coordinator was quoted last summer saying the country would experience so many disruptions that its government would have to declare martial law. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova were seen as so risky that the State Department issued a travel advisory in November and nonessential personnel were given home leave over New Year's.

So what accounts for the surprisingly quiet rollover? Computer experts cite several factors. Even the experts may have underestimated how hard many countries worked in the past few months, when the problems were better understood, and how much help they had from others that started early. And in many cases the assessments about overseas readiness were based on scarce, vague or arbitrary data.

Fewer computers in use

But the simplest if most embarrassing explanation is that the same public and private analysts who testified before Congress and were widely quoted overestimated the world's dependence on computer technology. Most countries had much less to do to prepare because they are far less computerized than the United States. The computers they do have are much less likely to be tied together in complex systems and are often so old that they run much simpler software, said Louis Marcoccio, year 2000 research director for the Gartner Group, a technology consulting firm.

Speaking at a briefing last week on why Pentagon analysts overestimated the risks in many countries, Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre said, "If we had a failing, it may be that we extrapolated to the rest of the world the kind of business practices that we have developed here in the United States."

The United States spent more than $100 billion preparing for Y2K, including substantial sums toward preparations in foreign countries by American multinationals. Motorola said that its $225 million year 2000 budget included not just repairs at its overseas factories but, for example, helping its Asian suppliers pinpoint potential year 2000 flaws. It also paid overtime for support that helped paging and radio networks in Italy function flawlessly over New Year's.

Picking up the tab

The federal government also picked up part of the tab for foreign nations. To jump-start lagging nations, the government paid for many of them to send representatives to the first U.N. meeting on year 2000 problems in late 1998. It distributed hundreds of thousands of CDs in 10 languages providing background and suggestions for how to organize year 2000 projects. More recently, the Defense Department provided the $8 million needed to set up a joint observation post in Colorado as an extra layer of insurance against miscommunication that could lead to missiles being launched.

Such aid played a bigger role in helping late starters to catch up than most people realize, said some computer experts. As John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, sees it, hype about the magnitude of the problem did not mislead as many people as hype about the impossibility of getting it largely fixed.

The simplest if most embarrassing explanation is that the same public and private analysts who were widely quoted badly overestimated the world's dependence on computer technology.

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