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The Millennium Bug was just biding its time … until 2038

The Millennium Bug was just biding its time … until 2038

Posted on 13th January 2020

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Those of you who, like one of our marketing team, swear by their Macs but also prefer to use Microsoft’s Office suite, had several more reasons to swear towards the end of 2019.  That’s because the new iOS – called Catalina – will only run 64 bit applications, and all but the most recent Office software is 32 bit.  Hence the bad language, not to mention having to fork out over £100 for the new, compatible software.

However, annoying as that was, it’s nothing compared to the possible turbulence that’s coming our way in a couple of decades – and again it’s to do with those pesky 32 bit processors.  Essentially, the issue is that these older processors have been used to count seconds on our computers since way back on 1st January 1970 and when we get to January 2038 they will hit the threshold for the number of seconds they can keep track of, revert to 1901 and quite possibly fall over.  The solution, as with Word, Excel, etc. on the Mac, is to update the software to 64 bit systems.        

Now before we all get worried, bear in mind that the vast majority of smart phones and modern PCs already operate on a 64 bit system. However, as noted in the Telegraph’s technology pages, “the problem is more pressing than the Millennium bug” and, just as with Y2K, a lot of work will be needed (much of it was unreported in 1999 but it was necessary) to ensure that all will be well.  Moreover, the massive development of the internet since the millennium means that there are millions more interconnected devices than there were last century.  The Telegraph quotes Rodolfo Rosini, of artificial intelligence firm, who said: “A lot of systems with the Y2K bug continued working because there was no network. Today, everything is networked, and will start issuing errors. This means everything needs to be updated to prevent contagion spreading.”  Also quoted is Arnd Bergmann, who helps maintain the core of the Linux operating system and who said “the problem is all those tiny embedded processors running the rest of the world, all the network infrastructure. Things like the oven, the smart light-bulb, the billions of things connected to the internet. Most of those are 32-bit, and most are running Linux. They are affected.”  

A particular problem is companies that build any machine that has a very long service life, designed to operate at customer sites for the next 30 or 40 years, many of which are 32-bit, depending on the application.  These manufacturers need to ensure their production lines are crisis-proof now, or they’ll have to update software and/or introduce new hardware later, which will be expensive.  According to Rodolfo Rosini, “At the very least, there should be something put in place which says by 2022, every single new system has to be fully compliant.”  Don’t say we haven’t been warned!

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT

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