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Y2K fears replaced by hype

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 1999

Two years ago, Matt Hotle, Lou Marcoccio and their research colleagues at the GartnerGroup assessed how well the world was prepared to handle the year 2000 computer glitch and proclaimed the outlook as "gloomy" and "pessimistic." Too pessimistic, critics scoffed.

Oh, how times have changed.

Their gloom of '97 lifted, turning into "cautious optimism" in 1999 that most people will suffer only isolated problems as Jan. 1 approaches. Still, critics complain.

"Now we're getting beaten up on the other side because our forecasts have been too optimistic," Hotle, an analyst, said. "We've followed the problem long enough to know. I think the tenor of concern (in our reports) has been responsible and prudent at each level."

Y2K and the GartnerGroup have become almost synonymous. The Stamford, Conn., consulting firm gained national attention in 1996 for its prediction in congressional testimony that the price tag for fixing the glitch could be up to $600-billion. While the number sounded huge at the time, analysts say now it's not only proving accurate but may be understated because it includes only software fixes, not other anticipated expenses such as potential legal bills.

Since then, the firm's quarterly assessments have been closely followed as a barometer of the problem, and the firm has become a regular in media reports.

Of course, the GartnerGroup wasn't the only voice heard. Everyone has an opinion on what will happen with the programming problem that has computers reading years in two digits instead of four. The year 2000 could be read as 1900, for example. Early doomsday warnings by some created scenarios of financial markets collapsing, utilities failing and chaos reigning.

Reporting on a question that has no concrete answers, the media has had headlines ranging from "The day the world shuts down" to "Millennial glitch big, but not that big," both from 1997.

Sometimes lost in the hype of the past two years was the gradual change in the consulting firm's outlook, from pessimism to almost a shrug. Hotle says it was simply a matter of analysts moving into "the know zone," getting a better understanding of the issue as they went.

For example, fears have subsided that embedded chips -- the simple electronics in everything from toasters to phones to cars -- could cause widespread chaos, Hotle said. Also, at first it was assumed that most Y2K problems would occur on Jan. 1 and in the days around New Year's, not spread out over 18 months as now predicted.

"If it all happened in one day," Hotle said, "it would be catastrophic."

Hotle and Marcoccio said that even when they first started studying Y2K they thought the problem could be handled. But it would take a lot of work.

"People needed to get kicked to get moving," said Marcoccio, who led the firm's research on the issue. Said Hotle: "In some cases we have followed a strategy to get more people to do something."

And move they have, Marcoccio said. "Many companies, individuals and countries moved forward and have done a great job working on the problem."

GartnerGroup's reports included surveys of thousands of companies internationally, and it was that scope that gave the firm's assessments credibility.

"We're actually talking to the people doing the work, people paying for the work and people who will suffer if it's not fixed," Hotle said.

Y2K will not pass problem-free, the analysts say. In fact, some businesses and government agencies have reported some problems. GartnerGroup says 97 percent of failures will take only minutes to fix, while others may take three days or longer.

The technological problems may pale compared to the public's reaction leading up to Jan. 1. Marcoccio and Hotle say there is more to worry about from panic than from glitches.

Hotle pointed out that many people who predicted major problems based on dates such as Sept. 9 (9/9/99) or a quarter such as Oct. 1 have been wrong. "Folks like this are extending the time frame for the problem."

Marcoccio has gone so far as to criticize NBC for planning to air a movie next month in which the star character urges the grounding of all flights, and Jan. 1 starts with a major power failure on the East Coast.

"It's the uninformed people who are going to panic the most," Hotle said.

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