Never before has the American public and American business, in particular, been faced with so large a looming catastrophe as that threatening with the Year 2000.

It's been called the "Millennium Bug,"and "the day the world stopped working." I'm referring to the situation where mainframe computers cease to be effective at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000othe start of the new millennium.

Since the dawn of computing, programmers have stretched the limits of available computer power, thereby allowing programs to process more quickly while using less of the system's capacity. Programmers looking to "cycle steal" during the 1960s and 1970s, shortened the year portion of dates stored in the file system of large mainframes to two digits, eliminating the century portion of the date (1997 becomes 97, for example). This practice saved companies millions of dollars in computer memory and storage. And with life expectancy of application programs forecast to be no more than five to seven years, the programs would be replaced long before 2000.

Then came the 1980s, a tumultuous decade for the computer industry. Application systems written in the '60s and '70s were due for replacement, but the industry was divided as to the best approach. Should control be centralized or decentralized? Should packages replace older homegrown systems? Should the industry embrace PC technology and its associated vehicle for communication, the local area network (LAN)? And of course the age-old question: how best to eliminate the mainframe and COBOL, it's most widely used language?

All of this contributed to the current situation. As a result, businesses are faced with the daunting task of spending in excess of $600 billion to renovate mainframe-based applications to accommodate the century change.

So now you know the "how" and "why" of the Year 2000 problem. The next question: What is everyone waiting for? There are less than 18 months of available productive time left to identify and fix the problem.

Corporations are failing to act aggressively in their approach to this problem. Don't kid yourself, it's a problem that's not going to go away. In fact, the problem will only worsen. As 2000 draws closer, service providers will become increasingly inundated with requests for assistance. The net result will be rising prices and elimination of available resources, making it impossible for many affected organizations to meet this show-stopping deadline.

Above all of the technical issues inherent in solving this problem lies the question of liability. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that in issues concerning the failure of systems resulting in an interruption of service, the officers, members of the board and senior management may be held personally liable. In other words, the veil of protection normally afforded to business has been lifted for Year 2000 negligence lawsuits. The Supreme Court feels that adequate time has been available for companies to plan and resolve this issue long before it becomes a problem.

The message to senior executives is clear: American businesses must get moving to eliminate one of the greatest problems they have ever faced. Working together, we can ensure a Happy New Year 2000. n

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