Were the Y2K Preparations in Vain?

During the past five years, governments and companies across the planet spent between $200 billion and $500 billion fixing the Y2K computer bug. Was this money spent in vain?

Because no major Y2K incidents occurred, skeptics charge that it was. They suggest that the few minor glitches–such as the $91,000 late fee on a New York man’s video rental–were easily corrected without spending billions. And countries such as Italy and Paraguay, which spent little on Y2K, appear to have fared as well as the United States, which spent $100 billion.  

However, while the jury is still out, the emerging consensus of computer experts is that the expenditures were worthwhile. Here’s their reasoning:

1.   A lack of preparation would have cost more. If “critical” systems–such as power grids, defense computers, and hospital equipment–had not been fixed, disaster might have followed. To prove this thesis, one state applied no Y2K fixes to three of its computers. The machines shut down when they encountered Jan. 1, 2000. Even in non-critical systems, fixing errors after the fact would have been expensive. For example, the cost of correcting a couple thousand incorrect bills at a video store would far outweigh the cost of prevention. And many computer system managers liken Y2K preparation to auto insurance: Just because you didn’t have a car accident last year, it doesn’t mean your insurance payments were a waste.

2.   Countries and companies spent money in proportion to their reliance on computers. Italy and Paraguay got away with spending less because they had fewer machines to fix: Paraguay’s water and electric systems are largely manual; its capital city has only one phone line per 11 people. In the U.S., smaller companies avoided major Y2K expense because they were less likely than large corporations to have mainframe computers running outdated code.

3.   The Y2K spending will have other positive results. Many companies solved their Y2K problems by buying and installing new equipment and software. Some of these upgrades would have been warranted, regardless of Y2K. Other upgrades will yield long-term benefits through improved computer infrastructure. And in the developing world, the technology upgrades provided “a vital advance into the computer age,” according to the Washington Post.

4.   Problems could still occur. Significant Y2K disruptions may appear well into the new year. Many errors won’t be revealed until software processes data, which could be as late as the next quarterly billing cycle. Also, some computers don’t recognize 2000 as a leap year, which means Feb. 29 could bring new problems.

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