What was the Y2K bug? How the digital world could come to a standstill…

Computer bugs are nothing new. They were there at the beginning of the computer era and presently when we are standing at the brink of entering into the new era of computing that will be dominated by artificial intelligence, machine to machine communication, and all other fancy forms of computing, computer bugs are still there and even in the future, we can see computer bug causing a number of new problems and that will eventually make the job more challenging for the developers to solve all the problems that are caused by those bugs. Among the most infamous bugs in the world of computing, one of the most popular bugs that could have disrupted computing who was the Y2K bug. 

It was a bug, that was discovered by the end of the last century, however, it was resolved to prevent any disruption in the world of technology. But in spite of that, there are several systems that were affected by the bug, and today I will talk about the highly discussed Y2K bug.

The Y2K bug was also in the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation on 12th May 2020, to explain the importance of India in solving a global problem and that is the reason, why the netizens and most other people are quite inquisitive to know about the Y2K bug. I will talk about all you need to know about the Y2K bug so that you can move a step forward into the world of computing by knowing a bit of its history.

Y2K bug, also called Year 2000 bug or Millennium Bug

The Y2K bug also called the Year 2000 bug or Millennium Bug

So, without any further delay, let’s get started with the brief introduction of the Y2K bug, and then I will talk about what kind of problem it was, and the threat it has posed to the computer users worldwide.

What is the Y2K bug?

Before proceeding further, we should know about what Y2K refers to. Y in Y2K refers to year and 2K refers to 2000. So, the term Y2K boils down to ‘The Year 2000’. So things might already be clear to you that the Y2K bug is, in some way related to the year 2000, or the beginning of the current century. How it is related to the current century is something that I will discuss in the next point.

What was the problem with the Year 2000 bug?

Today, talking about computers and electronic gadgets, storage is very cheap. We can get gigabytes and even terabytes of storage at affordable prices, however, talking about the last century, the scenario wasn’t that good. Forget gigabytes of storage, as every kilobyte of storage used to cost around $100 and thus, the programmers, and the users who used to use the computers for whatever purpose had the challenge to store the data in an efficient way so that cost-cutting can be carried out by reducing the storage that is necessary for storing certain data. However, as time went on, storage became cheaper and we can even get gigabytes and terabytes of storage at even less than $100. The same was applicable to computer RAMs.

In the olden days, computers were mostly used for commercial requirements, and also for research purposes, but was hardly used for personal requirements. So, when some data is stored on a computer, there should be a date. In the endeavour to reduce the amount of storage necessary for storing data, the year in the date field was expressed in just two digits instead of four.  For example, if the year 1964 has to be entered into a computer, only 64 will be written in the year field, to save storage space. It was taken for granted that every date that will be entered will be after 1900, and thus the first two digits were eliminated, as it was considered unnecessary.

The first two digits in the date field went unnoticed apparently, however, the problem was discovered when a magazine in the year 1993 talked about the potential problems that computers will start facing when the world will move to the new millennium, i.e. 2000. If the computers do not consider the first two digits of the Year after 31st December 1999, all the computers will revert back to 1st January 1900,  as, after 99 the next number will be a hundred, and as only the last two digits are considered, the year will be 00. So, to the computer, both, 1900 and 2000 were the same.

What the problem could have led to?

When we can understand, we are moving to the new millennium, and the whole world was preparing to welcome the new millennium, the software industry, and all other industries, which relied on computers in some way or the other, had this problem in mind. When we can understand the importance of dates, a date is mere data to a computer, and it will compute the date exactly the way it is programmed. So, when 1st January 2000 will appear, the computer will consider it to be 1900 and, herein lies the root of all the problems.

Even at the end of the last century, there were a number of computerized devices, apart from just computers, which was used in several industries, banks, and financial institutions, and also for research purposes. So, if a computer is confused between, the years 2000 and 1900, obviously, at the beginning of the century, it could have led to a number of serious problems, beyond the imagination of many.

Every machine, that used to depend on computers to work, like the interest calculation system in banks and other financial institutions, aeroplanes, nuclear and thermal power plants, vehicles, and all other devices that needs to know the date, could have malfunctioned. For example, if the credit card bill of a customer is generated on 31st December 1999, and if the customer tries to pay the bill on 1st January 2000, the customer might be asked to pay the interest for 100 years. You cannot blame the computer for this, as it is all about, how the programming has been done.

Additionally, like aeroplanes and air traffic controllers also require configuration of proper dates for functioning, that could also have led to a disruption of flight services, and in the same way, it could have led to plane crashes and all other types of problems.

In the worst-case, additional bugs in combination with the Y2K bug could also have resulted in more troubles, specific to the type of service that is offered by the industry or the computer in question. Otherwise, it was also expected, all the computers could also have stopped functioning at the beginning of the millennium. 

The solution to the Y2K bug

The simplest solution to the Y2K bug was to make the year field in a computerized date to four digits from the existing norm of two digits. Even most computers, that were manufactured and designed at the end of the last millennium were capable enough to allow 4 digits for the year, most of the computers that dated back to around 1960 or so, didn’t have enough storage space to assign 4 digits for the year field. However, the patch was released for several computers and the same was dispatched through the internet and the problem was almost solved before we stepped into the new millennium.

The problem was solved well before the year 2000, however, it required the participation and combined efforts of several organizations, governments, and research institutes. It was really a painful job to patch every single software so that the systems do not collapse all of a sudden just after midnight of the previous millennium. It is estimated that around $600 billion was invested globally to solve the Y2K bug. After all that investment and hard work, the world saw a new vista in the world of technology on 1st January 2000.

Some places where Millinieum bug still troubled

While the Y2K bug didn’t result in the global collapse of the computer systems, some computerized systems still suffered from what the world feared, would happen if the Y2K bug wasn’t fixed beforehand. Let’s have a look at them.

    • The thermostats in an apartment malfunctioned in South Korea, however, there wasn’t any explicit problem that resulted in the malfunctioning of the thermostats, other than the Y2K bug.
    • The bus ticket machines in Australia stopped functioning, as every ticket requires the date and time that determines the overall validity of the ticket. The tickets were rejected by the hardware used to check the tickets.
    • In Japan, the radiation monitoring system in a nuclear power plant failed, and possibly due to that, the alarms outside the nuclear power plant started. However, there wasn’t any increase in radiation levels in the plant and it didn’t pose any actual threat.
    • All the lottery machines in Delaware, a place in the US stopped working due to the Y2K bug.
    • The age of a baby born in Denmark recorded 100 years, just after the start of the new millennium, as the computer considered the new year to be 100 years ahead of the year, the baby was born.
    • Several US spy satellites were disrupted for three days resulting from a faulty patch to fix the Y2K bug in the satellites.
    • A man was presented with a ghosty bill at a video store, at the beginning of the millennium for returning the same apparently after 100 years, and it resulted from the Y2K fault.

So yes, there were a ton of problems. A few computer systems were stuck. But the degree of the problems was not as much as it was expected before the patch was released. A similar type of problem is expected to happen on 19th January 2038 with the computers that will run 32-bit operating systems. However, we still have 18 years in hand, and the chances that we will still have 32-bit systems at that time is quite unexpected, considering the speed of the advancement of technology today.

So, that was all about what you need to know about the Y2K bug. Do you have any questions? Feel free to comment on the same below.

Comments (2)

  1. Peter de Jager May 20, 2020
  2. Jeff Cooke May 23, 2020

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