As December 1999 turns into January 2000 most people will be out celebrating.
It's been widely predicted that on their return to work they will face computer-generated chaos: the reason being that a lot of computers recognise only the last two digits of any year. Therefore as 2000 arrives they will interpret 00 as 1900. The forecast effects on business of the 'year 2000 problem' have been mostly of the doomsday variety. Have the dangers been grossly overdramatised?
Geoff Jones, managing director of Business Performance, certainly thinks so. The company develops disks to check whether a PC can cope with the change to 2000. Those that can't, he suggests, are relatively easy to fix. 'A lot of companies are trying to make money by exaggerating the problem, then producing unnecessarily complicated solutions for it,' Jones believes. The problem will in any case tend to diminish over the next three years because of the short life cycle of computer equipment. 'There are not going to be many of the old type left at the sharp end of business by the year 2000. And I can't believe that anyone has been designing software in the last few years without bearing it in mind.'
But Jones accepts that businesses are right to be looking closely at the problem. And he makes a distinction between the PC market and some others. In fast moving consumer goods, for example, software for point-of-sale equipment may need upgrading to avoid problems with 'outdated' inventory. 'If I was running J Sainsbury, I would definitely be telling my suppliers: "I want a piece of paper in my filing cabinet telling me that you don't have a year 2000 problem."'
Catherine Parkin, spokeswoman for J Sainsbury's information systems division, declines to reveal whether this is indeed the company's practice. 'Naturally we're talking a lot to our suppliers about the issue. It's certainly not a small problem for a company of our size and is expected to cost us about £25 million to fix.' Nevertheless Parkin expects the project to be completed next year, well ahead of time.
Robin Guenier, executive director of Taskforce 2000, a non-profit-making organisation initiated by the Government to raise public consciousness of the issue, accepts that awareness levels have improved. But Guenier believes that fewer than 30% of company boards really understand what needs to be done, and even fewer companies are actually doing anything.
Guenier also maintains that companies which are looking into the problem are finding it much bigger than they anticipated. 'They are realising that they will not have time to fix everything - only the operationally critical things.'
A survey of over 500 US top executives found that only 2% of respondents were unlikely to complete the adjustments by the deadline. Thomas Oleson, a director of research firm International Data Corporation, warns that progress in Europe is slower and with year 2000 projects taking an average of between 27 and 33 months to complete, 'you guys are beginning to push the envelope towards the edge'.