Copyright: David Lawson . First published Property Week 1997Home page
'Aha,' says the computer. 'It's 1900. No rent bills due for another 100 years. And how come I've got a pile of property registered that will not be bought for another 80 years? I think I'll go bananas. Or I'll turn off until those flesh-and-blood dumbos work it out.' That is not as bad as some doom merchants predict, however. Hard luck if you are on a plane which decides it is not scheduled to land for another century. Or in a lift which screeches to a halt because it can't work out the next time it is supposed to let the landlord know it is due for a service.
This is the impact of the Millennium Bug - or more aptly, Millennium Meltdown, as it is not some virus that can be swept away by a special program.'The impact is potentially catastrophic,' says the British Computer Society. 'Businesses may be bankrupted, find themselves subject to litigation, unable to fulfil legal duties, find their accounts qualified, or see their stock market values fall.'
So why has this time bomb been allowed to continue ticking to almost the last minute? 'It hasn't,' says Peter Campion, IT consultant for Richard Ellis. 'The property industry discovered the problem back in the 1970s, when we had to write separate programs to handle leases which ran beyond the year 2000.' Sectors such as insurance and pensions also went into overdrive to squash this bug.
So should the doom merchants be ignored? Unfortunately not. There is more to this problem than major operators with big IT departments running custom software on mainframe computers. Even the smallest business now relies on computers - often without specialist knowledge. These have changed out of recognition, with most modern systems based on desktop PCs. And they have their own problems.
Hidden within each machine is a chip which keeps track of the date and time, passing this onto each database and spreadsheet it runs. These chips are also flawed. Any machine more than five years old is likely to flip to 1900 when switched on after the country recovers from its millennium hangover.
Campion, who recently retired as full-time IT head of RE, is bringing RE's computers up to date. Obsolete Wang-based systems which cannot handle the Millennium Bug are being phased out. A complete revamp of the software is giving the opportunity to ensure this will not crash.
Not everyone is trembling over the potential problems. 'All the modern Windows-based systems should be safe because of the way they handle dates,' says Keith Noble of BoE Systems, who believes that consultants have stirred up many fears to gain business. 'If users have doubts, they should contact suppliers for reassurance or to have machines upgraded.'
That is just what they are doing. Estateman, a leading supplier of estate management systems, is being inundated with calls from customers alarmed by apocalyptic Press stories. 'We are sending a standard letter out to all our customers to try and reassure them,' says managing director Stephen Bolton.
But many users are not switched on to these potential problems - or they expect some magic solution to come and waft them away. Even some experts believe the normal cycle of machine and software upgrading over the next three years will defuse the time bomb.
'Windows-based releases already need a minimum of a 486 to run comfortably and by 2000 the standard will be even higher,' says Noble. That means users will have bought new machines by then which can handle the date change.
A glance at the XTs and 286s still running ten-year-old applications in offices around the UK shows this argument could have a fatal flaw. Smaller firms are often well behind the market leaders. The property sector may escape the Millennium meltdown with fewer bruises because it saw the problem early, but anyone who expects a fault-free transition could be greeting the Millennium with tears rather than cheers.
'No-one believed that the code would be around for a decade, let alone until the end of the century,' says Peter de Jager, an industry commentator who has briefed the US government about the 600bn dollar cost of adjusting the world's computers.
This glitch could have been avoided when the PC took over from mainframes, but new programs were built on the same rules. Even modern systems often have bits of old code called 'legacy systems' buried inside. Finding these dates among millions of lines of code is an enormous job, says de Jager.
Optimists believe the problem is more hype than substance, as users will have adopted new systems by the year 2000. Both de Jager and the British Computer Society are more gloomy. Businesses must allow 12 months for testing systems, which makes the effective changeover less than two years away, he says.
They are not normally sensitive to dates. Like car engine controls and plane navigation systems, these chips work in real time. 'But many will have been linked by control software which could be vulnerable,' says Cooper.
A lift may be programmed to turn off at night and a heating system to turn down in summer. Both can be set to remind engineers when they require servicing. And modern building management systems are usually controlled by a central PC, which itself may not be able to cope with the date change.
Even when a supplier knows its system is secure, there is no way of telling what other software has been bolted on. Every building should be tested by forcing the date change, says Cooper.
'We are three months away from completing checks on our own components,' says Cooper. 'We will then be going out to check hundreds of sites.'
A major problem could arise for buildings which do not have service contracts because of cost-cutting or the supplier has gone bust. Many have also been fitted by system firms, which assemble components from different sources.
The first Monday of the next century could be an uncomfortable one for many occupiers. They could be frustrated by swipe cards that will not let them in, lifts that refuse to work and heating systems that fail to turn on. All because a few slivers of silicon refuse to accept the march of time.