Phew! But big Y2K test yet to come

When businesses reopen tomorrow, they still could face glitches

Experts relieved but cautious

New Year's Day brings minor problems, a few false alarms

January 02, 2000|By Frank Roylance and Ann LoLordo | Frank Roylance and Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

New Year's Day came and went without much of a computer hitch. Those little nines on computer systems across the country turned to zeros and nothing exploded. Not a plane fell out of the sky. Not a light failed to glow. Not a bank account froze. Not a phone went dead. (At least not any that caused a 2000 meltdown.)

It was the NOT heard round the world. At least for the first 24 hours.

America, stand by. The Big Glitch may still be coming, though.

That's what the experts cautioned yesterday. Tomorrow, America goes back to work. The boats, the trains, the airports, the hospitals, the banks, the utilities, the stock markets, the government -- all are back in business. So the real test may lie ahead.

John A. Koskinen, the head of the president's council on the year 2000 conversion, was proud of the bug's no-show. So smoothly had the passage of 1999 gone that the Y2K bug didn't even warrant a mention in President Clinton's weekly radio address.

But Koskinen, the careful and precise former business executive who has led the nation's Y2K effort for the past two years, cautioned: "It's far too early to feel totally satisfied and declare victory. I think we've got another three or four days of careful and close monitoring ahead of us before we can determine how successful we have been."

Koskinen reported a few mishaps:

Amtrak's scheduling system could not retain the symbols representing each train's number, but employees were able to enter them into the system manually. A few defense system reconnaissance satellites were unheard for several hours, though a backup system eventually restored partial service. Five nuclear power plants had computer trouble analyzing weather data or checking security access.

The Web page of the Naval Observatory noted the new year as "19100" -- an attempt by an antiquated program to ring in the 100th anniversary of 1900. That was quickly rectified, and it had no effect on the observatory's functions.

In Omaha, Neb., a federal building alarm system malfunctioned; programmers reset its computers to the year 1972 as a short-term fix, and the alarm rearmed itself.

But overall, Koskinen said, it was a measure of the successful efforts of private firms and state, local and federal agencies that the country passed into the new year nearly glitch-free and that questions continued about whether the Y2K rollover proved more hype than crisis.

"The financial institutions and telecommunications industries are very clear that if the work had not been done, their systems would have simply failed to operate," he said.

But big firms that invested heavily in fixing the problems are the least likely to be affected, said Andy Kyte, an analyst with the Gartner Group, a U.S. information technology research company that offered some of the gloomiest Y2K predictions.

"It will be mid-sized companies, those big enough to need computer systems to function but too small to be able to run significant Y2K remediation."

The sighs of relief heard after the stroke of midnight Friday evolved into a stream of questions and comments by late yesterday: All right! What happened? Some scam. It ain't over.

"This has been such a big deal for so long and to have it go off without a hitch, it feels good," said H. Kurt Helwig, 38, of the Herndon, Va.-based Electronic Funds Transfer Association. "It feels good."

On his way home early yesterday from a New Year's Eve party, Helwig stopped at an automated teller machine in Washington. It gave him what he asked for: money. He plans to post the receipt in his office.

"The hard work that everybody put into it and the money everyone put into it paid off," said Helwig. "This is something that we have been working on for a number of years. It shows what we can do."

Gordon Anderson, the mayor of Grants Pass, Ore., was more skeptical.

"You've got to believe the problem was not as serious as it was presented to the American people," said Anderson, whose town was among the first to gear up against the Y2K bug.

Such skepticism threw veteran programmer and early Y2K prophet Bob Bemer into a fit of laughter. The threat was real, he said. Fortune 500 companies don't spend hundreds of millions of dollars fixing problems that don't exist.

Fewer than 10 percent of all Y2K-related failures will occur during the two weeks surrounding yesterday, according to a report by the Gartner Group. Fifty-five percent could hit over the rest of the year.

PC owners may not know they have a Y2K problem until they work with their computers and begin to encounter difficulties. They'll download the software fixes and then discover they never backed up their data and can't get it back.

"Most people are sitting there with very high technology tool they don't really understand," Bemer said.

Dave Warshaw of Catonsville had a scare yesterday. Through most of the day he neglected to test his Pentium computer. At 3 p.m. he finally sat down and booted up.

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