September 1998

Just who is to blame for the Year 2000 problem?

Some people will put the blame for this brewing data fiasco on the shoulders of the managers and the programmers of the 1960's. After all, they should have foreseen that software doesn't wear out (since it is not physical). They should have known that their products would still be widely used some 30 years into the future, right?

Or perhaps they will blame computer hardware designers for failing to design and test their products for Year 2000 compatibility. Ten or 20 years ago, products were built to last, and therefore the computer manufacturers should not have been so sloppy. They should have foreseen that their equipment would become the foundation of the Information Economy, right?

But this is placing the burden of prophetic responsibility on people whose job has always been to simply bring in the most dollars to the bottom line. Theirs was not the role of visionary, or global organizer, or even weather forecaster. They were doing their jobs and making the design tradeoffs necessary to stay in business, just as every other type of company was doing then and still is doing today.

No, the blame for the computer problems of today and tomorrow must be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who are in positions of power and responsibility right now. Why have the large and medium-sized businesses only recently begun addressing the Year 2000 issue? Because they have been distracted and confused into wasting time on the desktop computer revolution. There is only so much time in a manager's day, and there are only so many things that he or she can spend time fixing. There are only so many items that can neatly fit onto an agenda, or into a budget plan. And more and more in this decade, the growing burden of support and maintenance caused by Microsoft products has evaporated any "free time" or contemplative opportunities for IT managers.

Yes, I am placing the blame for the coming Year 2000 fiasco squarely on the shoulders of Bill Gates and his cohorts at Microsoft.

Not alone, of course, are these people in sharing responsibility for the coming twenty-year recession. Also to blame is the current self-serving elite echelon of managers who made the decision to trust Microsoft, an upstart company with no background in long-term planning, data handling, reliability, maintenance, or any of the other checklist requirements that we put under the umbrella term "enterprise." Instead of trusting the warning voices of technically knowledgeable staffers, these elite pad-scribblers and memo-doodlers put political correctness and popular appeal ahead of the laws of nature. You remember those laws, don't you? Laws like exponential growth, computational complexity, inertia, learning curves, cascading failures, and the other unyielding rules of life in the information fastlane. These laws cannot be abridged, and they cannot be ignored without eventually suffering a penalty. Possession of an MBA or a key to the executive washroom does not constitute a "get out of jail card" for the Information Age.

But not just the big companies suffer from this erroneous mindset. The end of small business in America will result from the pop-culture mentality of the trendy PC business, egged on and encouraged by a too-hip media always anxious to find a story that sells, not a story that informs and educates. Emotion-laden appeals to overthrow the established order of text, mathematical correctness, and rigorous testing -- in other words, willing acceptance of neurological decadence -- do not solve the long-term issues of poor scholastic training and the absence of organizational skills. Indeed, this attitude of anything-goes contributes to the false sense of security that people have about their data.

What lies ahead for the computerized world? Nobody can say for certain what the next few years will bring. However, a good starting point is to try to put some numbers on the table to quantify the trends.

1. (20% chance) A 20-year recession. Most of the Y2K fixes being promoted are nothing more than "sliding the window" a few years into the future by subtracting 5, 10, or 20 years from the date fields. Since the fixes are different for each company (and indeed *within* each company), Y2K failures will happen at semi-random intervals for the next 20 years or so.

2. (20% chance) The end of the Democratic Party in America. Forget Lewinsky, Jones, and Flowers. People will be asking a lot of hard questions when the communication, transportation, and financial infrastructure begins suffering "storms" of outages and failures. An eight-year Presidency should have produced a long-term strategy to address these issues. A Vice President claiming to be a technology "wonder boy" may also begin looking like a sick joke.

3. (10% chance) The end of the Republican Party in America. If the Democrats decide to deflect the blame away from the executive branch and successfully put the stigma of scandal and distraction onto the Republican attack dogs, the "pox on both their houses" mentality may pull down the two-party system from both pillars.

4. (60% chance) The end of Small Business in America. Not every small business will disappear when their Windows coaches turn into Y2K pumpkins; however, smaller firms who failed to upgrade to IBM OS/2 or at least a Unix variant may find their tax and financial records to be an unrepairable mess. Furthermore, it's not just the large base of older PCs and Windows machines that will suffer; any non-Y2K-compliant application on ANY platform may doom a business to the scrap-heap of history. Small businesses who rest in the smug self-assurance that they don't have a "mainframe" or "legacy" problem will be devastated. While some small businesses will survive, the small business as a cultural phenomenon and an economic engine may disappear.

5. (30% chance) Microsoft cashes in, bails out, and relocates to mainland China. After shoveling the Y2K-doomed Windows95 product out the door, Chairman Bill took a little trip to the wide open spaces in rural China. The train ride with his buddy Warren Buffet was possibly more of a scouting trip than a getaway. The real getaway may occur in two years, when Congressional inquiry into massive failures of the military infrastructure based on recently-acquired Windows products puts the heat on the Redmond cabal.

6. (70% chance) Massive global consolidation of all categories of business. If you think the LBO's and mergers of the last twenty years have been huge, "you ain't seen nothing yet." Major corporations with non-Y2K-safe infrastructures will likely be eaten by those who have wisely built on OS/2 and Unix foundations.

7. (40% chance) A major pension-fund meltdown, leading to poverty and unrest among retirees. Since most pension funds have become heavily leveraged in stocks, and most of these funds are built on a handful of "anchor companies" -- like Microsoft -- when these companies take a dive, many pension funds are likely to go broke. A high percentage of this suddenly poorer older generation also happens to be politically active. Consider what that might mean in light of items 2 and 3 above.

Of course, some, all, or none of these things might happen. Probably a dozen other impacts not listed here will be more interesting and of major historical significance. We do indeed live in interesting times.soft manipulators.

Most recent revision: September 1, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.