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Question: What caused the Dark Ages in Europe?

Answer: The Y1K problem.

As we rumble down the final stretch to the new millennium, jokes like that seem increasingly realistic. In the summer of 1999 in Grand Central Station in New York City, a woman was handing out printed Y2K brochures whose headline read: "God Has Already Done His Part, Now He Wants You To Do Yours." On a more practical level, The New York Times has created a Web site for elementary-school teachers to use when instructing their students about this vexing issue. (Point your browsers to www.nytimes.com and click on "Learning Network" on the front page.)

But questions remain: Will the Y2K problem cause another Dark Ages? This time, of course, the Dark Ages would be global, not merely continental; a sequence of escalating meltdowns, blackouts, and disasters affecting trade, finance, transportation — in sum, everything. We are at a level of complexity that can best be described by chaos theory: some non-Y2K-compliant "butterfly" in Tierra del Fuego could cause a systems-meltdown "hurricane" in Boston or Britain or Bangkok. We won't know until January 1, 2000.

This mother of all computer problems was caused by a reasonable decision taken at mid-century. Since computer memory and systems were infinitesimally small by today's standards (even the few relatively behemoth computers used by the techno-elite) every "bit" counted. Programmers decided to use only two digits (e.g., 50), and not four (e.g., 1950), to identify the year in most computer programs. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But today, "00" could just as logically be 1900 or any other century date, leading to confusion, crashes, meltdowns . . . you get the picture.

The Y2K bug is a great story for the press. From Scientific American to the Washington Post, to the trendy "Circuits" section of The New York Times, the Y2K issue (aka the millennium bug) has enjoyed round after round of media attention. And, like the Energizer bunny, it's still going.

Most importantly, how are corporations and nations responding? The dimensions are amazing.

  • American Express is reportedly spending $100 million to become compliant.

  • In Mexico, where, according to Cabinet Minister Dr. Carlos M. Jarque, 75 percent of the people "should not know or even care about the Y2K issue," the Y2K efforts are all focused on the 165,000 of the nation's 3.2 million commercial entities that actually have network computers. Jarque is also president of the Mexican Conversion Commission Year 2000, the official governmental body established to deal with Y2K issues.

  • The cost of getting the systems of the U.S. federal government in shape for Y2K, an effort coordinated by the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion [formerly http://www.y2k.gov/], is estimated at a cool $5.5 trillion.

Those astounding figures are of little practical significance, however, to the managers, committees, and consultants who have been trying to cope with Y2K issues in publishing, which top out at a total cost of tens of millions of dollars. But even if the numbers are relatively low, the impact is great.

"If you haven't essentially addressed this question in your company you're dead," says Charles Benante, vice president, electronic commerce systems and technology at Pearson Education (formerly Prentice Hall/Simon & Schuster). "It's that complicated, and that simple."

For publishers, Y2K compliance is not limited to the accounting system or invoices for major vendors; it affects everything. It's LAN/WAN routers, desktop systems, spreadsheets with embedded dates, uninterruptible power supplies, software products, relational databases, elevators, fire alarms, chips embedded in warehouse systems, and the telephone system. Carl Urbania, vice president and chief information officer of Thomson Learning, says the phone system is his biggest worry. And if you are a small publisher using PCs, you are not immune. They have a Y2K problem with some older software. (Macintosh users catch a break on this: Apple built its systems for four-digit years.)

And what about electronic publishers? Will the Internet itself be secure? A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education ("Day by Day, Campus Computer Officials Prepare for the Dawn of 2000," 6/25/99, p. A31. Subscribers can also find it online.) noted that the University of Dayton, due to fear of "outside influences," will disconnect its network from the Internet on December 31 and reconnect it the following morning. Should others follow suit? Donald Heath, president of the Internet Society, says that the society determined that for the mighty Internet infrastructure itself, "there are no problems. It's clean. The infrastructure and software are all clean."

Does that mean that people will not have trouble trying to access Web sites come the year 2000? Well, it depends on whether the sites themselves are Y2K ready. Are they, for instance, running on PCs that have not been upgraded for the millennium? Glitches could abound, and Web surfers may think the problem is with the Internet.

Mr. Heath's optimism notwithstanding, other experts are less sanguine. For example, basic elements, like routers and switches, are not necessarily all compliant and could send e-mail from cyber space to lost in space. Another key element is your Internet service provider, and January 1 may bring you more surprises than just that unexpected disconnect or the endless waiting while the modem squawks. Dave Farber, of the University of Pennsylvania, a leading Internet savant, is quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying, "I have no idea in the world (what the impact will be). . .There are going to be some really strange events. . . They may disconnect certain countries until those countries get back together. How long will that last? I don't know. I don't think anyone does."

Whether or not the Internet itself may stumble into the new millennium, some publishing companies took the bull by the horns a couple of years ago, and seem to be in good shape. Addison Wesley Longman was "completely Y2K ready, whether enterprise-wide, divisional, or with or suppliers, the second week in January," says Jo Happe, AWL's chief information officer. "We had a cradle-to-grave test that went okay. We are very clean." That may not be as true of Simon & Schuster/Prentice Hall, which AWL recently acquired. Happe and her team are wading into that, and expect the work to be done before the fourth quarter — the result of two years of intense efforts across the company. "The only way to get through this project is to put everything else in abeyance," Happe says. It was an effort that required all-hands meetings every six weeks for the early months, and then every three weeks. "There were all kinds of surprises," she says.

Houghton Mifflin was also off and running in 1996, says Mark Mooney, senior vice president and chief technical officer. Like several other publishers, Houghton Mifflin pursued a strategy of first assessing the risks (taking an enterprise-wide rather than a vertical perspective), then setting up a Y2K program office. "We outsourced the remediation of the mainframe, replaced our financial system entirely, and are redoing the order-management system internally," Mooney says. The crisis had some unexpected benefits. "We estimate in one case that we will save $400,000 over three years by replacing one of our systems," he adds.

As several publishing executives in charge of Y2K compliance noted, Y2K is a management issue, not an information technology issue. Support from the top is critical. In spite of the potential for disaster, Jo Hoppe says that some Addison Wesley Longman division heads felt that they had priorities other than Y2K. "I just called Peter [Jovanovich, chief executive officer of AWL], and five minutes later he had them in his office."

Another well-known publisher set up Y2K committees in every part of the organization to get a "360-degree perspective" on the problem. They wanted to go beyond system compliance, to create contingency plans in case major problems were to develop in any area. That publicly held company had to avoid any rude surprises for shareholders: The SEC has issued new guidelines that require companies to specify whether Y2K-related costs would have been incurred anyway, or are incremental to normal business expenses.

Since the beginning of 1999, companies have started testing the new systems. At Addison Wesley Longman a Y2K consultant was found to have taken the wrong approach to making interfaces compliant. "We lost eight weeks on that one," Hoppe says. It was not just a matter of reworking the fix; the contingency plans had to be tested to make certain that — as Hoppe says with rueful humor — "the evacuation routes really will get you off the island if the storm strikes."

Problems surfaced as such companies as Houghton Mifflin started doing advance shipments, or K-12 publishers put out products with software that had a five- to seven-year life cycle. "In these cases, you have to know your customer very well," Mooney says, "Decide whether to upgrade the current product, or replace it with a compliant one. It's a pure business decision."

As the millennium approaches, skepticism and caution would seem to be the watchwords. An IBM executive, detailed to the East Coast from San Francisco to work with customers on Y2K issues, expressed concern about indifference and even overstatement on the part of software vendors. In her view, "Even some of the software that Microsoft says is compliant, just isn't."

There are other problems as well. As Carl Urbania of Thomson Learning noted, "Between publishers and major vendors an odd phenomenon is occurring." Like many other industries, publishing is trying to make certain that all the other players along its value chain have systems that are Y2K compliant. Due-diligence questionnaires about compliance are being sent by publishers to vendors (and vice versa). But companies are being instructed by their corporate lawyers to send back form letters that, behind all the verbiage, say 'Trust us. We're good citizens.'

"We're all sending these detailed questionnaires and letters back and forth," mused Urbania. "It's a little shell game."

So, the big question for publishers (along with the other inhabitants of the planet) is: Will January 1, 2000, 12:01 AM be TEOTWAWKI — The End Of The World As We Know It? Nicely reflecting the response in the publishing industry as well, Kathleen M. Adams, head of the Social Security Year 2000 project, was quoted in the Washington Post: "We know there will be disruptions . . . . It's just a matter of degree. Are they going to be critical infrastructure, or are they going to be nuisances?"

There are those who plan to go to cabins deep in the woods with blankets, candles, food, cash, books, transistor radios, etc. and not come out until planes stop falling from the skies and the chaos abates. Writing in Scientific American, author Wendy M. Grossman confessed that while she is not too worried, she has already stockpiled several dozen bags of chocolate chips.

But in the publishing industry, they're ready. Mark Mooney says he and his staff "will be physically in the building at 222 Berkeley Street, standing ready when the clock strikes midnight. Hopefully, it will just be a party." Jo Hoppe says she's not going to be on an airplane, or in a hospital getting elective surgery, but she's not getting in an uproar about the business. "It may be a little bumpy in some places, but overall I'm not too worried."



As president of LIGHTSPEED, LLC, based in New York City, James Lichtenberg provides strategic counsel to clients in publishing, information technology, and higher education. His focus is the transformation of publishing and higher education due to the impact of new information technologies. He contributes regularly to Publishers Weekly on that issue. He is a former senior vice president at Hill and Knowlton, and was vice president of the Higher Education Division of the Association of American Publishers. His clients include Houghton Mifflin, Prudential, Nestlé, John Wiley, Harvard, Yale, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Council on Family Health, AT&T, and DuPont. He was graduated from Harvard College with a B.A. in English literature, and he received a M.S. in sociology/socioeconomics from the New School for Social Research. You may contact him by e-mail at jameslichtenberg@att.net.



Related Link:

A good starting point is the National Institute of Standards and Technology Year 2000 Website, http://web.archive.org/web/19991008024616/http://www.nist.gov/public_affairs/factsheet/y2koutreach.htm.


Links from this article:

Internet Society, http://www.isoc.org

The New York Times, www.nytimes.com

President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion, [formerly http://www.y2k.gov]