By Mike Docker
In less than 18 months, thousands of trusty PCs will wake up on the first day of the new millennium thinking it's 1900: Queen Victoria is still on the throne, flying machines haven't been invented, and the food listed on the stockroom database is 100 years past its use-by date.
And it's not just computers that will suffer from the delusion. Many of the programs running on them will have trouble accepting the new date, and other machines and electronic devices with a clock at their heart could be affected, from lifts and central heating systems to microwaves and freezers. When these flawed timing devices were first produced the millennium seemed a long way off, and using just two digits for the date seemed a sensible economy on limited processing power and expensive memory.
The UK has taken the "millennium bug" problem more seriously than most countries. The Government has undertaken to ensure that essential services such as hospitals, transport, banks, power, telecoms and broadcasting continue to function. The Department of Trade and Industry has set up a task force, Action 2000, with a multi-million pound budget to see us through the difficult times ahead. Specifically, it has £70m to help small and medium-sized businesses develop the IT skills to assess and fix systems that will be affected by the problem. This will include grants worth £1,300 per trainee to help train 20,000 people. Its Web site is at http://www.bug2000.co.uk where visitors can find out about the help available and subscribe to an e-mail mailing list to be kept abreast of the latest developments.
The Web offers plenty of guidance to businesses in assessing how vulnerable they, or their suppliers, may be. There are also software and consultancy solutions on offer, at a price. A good place to start for free advice is Powys Training and Enterprise Council's site at http://www.powys.tec.org.uk/y2k which explains the situation in plain English - or Welsh, if preferred - and offers a six-point plan for measuring and dealing with the problem. The site also has pointers and links to other sources of help.
Last week the insurance industry announced that it would not compensate policy holders for appliance failures due to the millennium bug. In their view the millennium is an entirely predictable event for which people should be expected to prepare themselves. The threat is clear enough.