Could our computers stop working at the stroke of midnight?
It almost happened once before.
At the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, many computers, software programs, and electronic equipment worldwide faced the possibility of failure due to a software bug.
What exactly was this bug? Early software programmers adopted a two-digit convention to represent the year to save storage space and perhaps reduce the number of keystrokes necessary to enter a year.
For example, “1998” was stored as “98” in data files. But there was no way to store “2000” as “00” since computer systems would see “00” as the year “1900.” The “Millennium Bug” was not a bug but a result of design decisions based on costs and other factors.
These two-digit years existed in millions of data files and software applications. Embedded computer chips also used the two-digit date format.
Embedded computer chips.
By the ’90s, embedded computer chips were in common household goods such as toasters, televisions, digital clocks and watches, telephones, and microwave ovens. Even some cars already had computer chips in them.
Non-household embedded systems that would fail because of the Y2K bug included: building security and fire suppression systems, elevators, phone systems, copier and fax machines, food and soda vending machines, water coolant, freezing, and heating systems.
There were also embedded computer chips in air conditioning systems, parking lot gates, time clocks, factory machinery, vaults, safes, water and sewage systems, and our electric grids.
The Year 2000 and a crisis averted.
In the months leading up to the new millennium, there was a worldwide effort to rewrite the programming code in software that contained the bug. The Millennium Bug had captured the media’s attention and that of the public as apprehension of what could happen at the stroke of midnight increased.
However, embedded computer chips were often overlooked in a rush to repair the Year 2000 computer date problems. Unsure which systems would fail after the date rolled over, manufacturers waited to replace these computer chips once they failed.
The public was unaware of the work that had gone into reprogramming software and upgrading hardware to handle a four-digit date. When January 1, 2000, arrived, and only some minor failures occurred, consumers had the feeling the Millennium Bug was all hype and was never a problem at all.
Could the Millennium Bug happen again?
Not for about 8,000 years when we go to a five-digit date system. We have plenty of time to prepare for the year 10,000, the “Decem Millennium.”
Could our dependency on computer chips cause a problem?
Today’s home appliances communicate to their manufacturer via the internet. Some high-end refrigerators can even scan their contents and send a shopping list to our phones. Most new cars use computers (or computer chips) to keep track of engine maintenance and notify the driver when to check the vehicle.
Earlier this year, the world’s supply of computer chips that give life to our devices dried up. What caused the shortage of chips? It started with the Covid-19 pandemic.
People working from home caused computer sales to increase, increasing demand for new computers. Supply chain issues arose worldwide, and we have seen one of the longest shortages of computer chips in the history of computing.
Factories are ramping up production, but this will take time to have much of an effect. It can take six months to create a chip. Experts say that even by the end of 2022, customers will still be waiting 10 to 20 weeks for multiple kinds of chips.
Our dependency on computer chips for our devices has grown exponentially since the year 2000.
The use of intelligent technology in our homes, cars, and devices show no signs of slowing down. Our desire for technologies to connect them continues to drive demand for those tiny computer chips that run our world of gadgets.
Computer chip manufacturers and software programmers need to ensure that the technology we have come to know and love can continue to grow with our demand for these devices.
They don’t have 8,000 years to get it right.
In my next article, I will discuss Internet Security.
Deborah Edwards is an IT Writer and Audio Narrator. She loves to explore new ways to use technology in everyday life. You can find her IT tips on https://deborahellenedwards.net/ and hear her audio clips on Soundcloud and YouTube.