So tonight we’re gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety nine.
Supposedly, on the first of January, 2000, the world was going to be destroyed by a computer glitch named the ‘Millennium Bug’ (also referred to as ‘Y2K’ or the ‘Year 2000 problem’) whereby numerous computer systems would think the year was 1900 instead of 2000, resulting in planes falling out of the sky, satellites going wrong and all the calculators going to silicon heaven. (Most of the actual problems were just cosmetic, such as programs displaying the year after “1999” as “19100”, or desktop internal clocks resetting to 1st January 1981 as a crash-preventing exception).
Of course, planes, satellites and calculators didn’t do that, much to the joy of aviators, astronomers and calculus students. But the bug was an opportunity for writers to come up with doomsday stories and a few of them even wrote of actual insects (groan-worthy though that may sound). Some newspapers even had a weekly column in their tech section throughout 1999, detailing how things were going in the battle against the bug. It’s worth noting that Y2K is now seen as being blown out of proportion, but that was mostly a direct result of thousands of man-hours of programmers (mostly COBOL, which isn’t really used for safety-critical software) working tirelessly to avoid a technological apocalypse. Although some dangers such as “planes falling out of the sky” were pretty much fabricated, the effects on the economic centre would be immeasurable. In addition, the Y2K preparations also had the effect of causing a lot of companies to rethink their emergency plans, helping them get back on their feet faster after events like 9/11 and the 2003 Northeast US blackout.
Funnily enough, just when people started to relax when the 1999-2000 transition came to pass and nothing really major happened to computers across the globe, something actually did come along and wreak havoc on computers worldwide: the ILOVEYOU virus, or the “Love Bug” as it came to be misnomered. For the sequel to the Bug itself, watch for the Year 2038 problem (when the UNIX system time integer exhausts its 32 bits), coming soon to a computer near you.
Fortunately, by that point, we will certainly be using 64-bit processors; however, many embedded systems still run on 32-bit CPUs and will continue to do so for years - maybe until 2038.