New Y2K Threat: Embedded Systems by Scott Kirsner 2:00am 19.Jan.98.PST With less than two years left until the world's computers enter the new millennium, Peter de Jager is losing sleep. The world's leading consciousness-raiser for the year-2000 problem is worried about a less-visible aspect of the date-processing errors expected to plague computers as they tick past 31 December 1999. While much attention has been focused on fixing older mainframe computers and even PCs, de Jager says that embedded systems - the built-in, preprogrammed chips that govern everything from microwave ovens to nuclear reactors - have been overlooked. De Jager, a Canadian computer consultant and author who is a celebrity on the year 2000 speaking circuit, is not one to sit idle. On 31 December, he announced Project Damocles, an effort to get embedded systems manufacturers to own up to Y2K bugs that might affect their products, from electric razors to heart-lung machines. "Why did I take charge?" de Jager asks. "No one was doing anything. The governments of the world don't take this problem seriously," he complains - while others complain about his solution. Project Damocles borrows its name from a Greek legend about a courtier given the king's seat for a banquet - with a sword hanging over it from a single hair, demonstrating the perilous side of power. The project asks that anyone who knows of products that might experience date-related failures to report them to de Jager or his Web site. Then de Jager will delete the sender's name and forward the report to the manufacturer's legal department via registered mail. If the manufacturer doesn't solve the problem and failures do occur, Project Damocles will make its copy of the report available to attorneys, helping them to prove negligence on the part of the manufacturer. "My objective is to force manufacturers to do what is right by hanging a double-edged sword over their heads," wrote de Jager, in an email that went out to the 30,000 subscribers on his year 2000 mailing list. "A sword which swings into action after they allow a failure to occur." The euphemistic "failures" that could occur might better be termed catastrophes, according to many in the emerging year 2000 software and services industry. Embedded systems can be found in all types of power plants, water and sewage systems, many of the devices used in hospitals, military equipment, aircraft, oil tankers, alarm systems, and elevators. "This is potentially the most destructive part of the year 2000 problem," says Dr. Leon Kappelman, a professor at the University of North Texas and co-chair of the Society for Information Management's Year 2000 Working Group. "This isn't the inconvenience part where your paycheck comes a few days late. This is the blood-in-the-streets part." And compared to Y2K bugs on mainframe computers, embedded systems are tougher to fix. Patches or workarounds aren't effective; in most cases, the systems must be completely replaced. "Year 2000 has been perceived incorrectly as primarily a mainframe thing," says Capers Jones, chairman of Software Productivity Research and another leading year 2000 expert. He has estimated the worldwide costs of the computer crisis could be as high as US$3.6 trillion. "But the embedded stuff is going to be a mess, and it hasn't received enough attention. It wouldn't hurt to expose some of the manufacturers, especially those whose products can kill us, like medical equipment companies," he added, saying Project Damocles looks like a step in the right direction. Kappelman adds that only about 10 percent of the four billion chips manufactured in 1996 went into PCs and other devices typically thought of as computers. The rest reside in embedded systems. "But because so many of the embedded systems problems put lives at risk, there's a great reluctance to publicly share information about them," he adds. "Whatever can be disclosed through forums like Peter's is good, because the public needs to know how much is really at stake." But others question de Jager's methodology. "I'm not sure why one individual having any proprietary information is necessary to solve the problem," says Harris Miller, president of the Washington, DC-based Information Technology Association of America, an industry trade group. "It won't get solved by keeping secrets - it's about being as open and collaborative as possible." The ITAA has had a product questionnaire on its Web site for several months aimed at helping vendors and customers jointly resolve embedded systems issues. Jim Lott, a product manager at Dallas Semiconductor, acknowledged the value of efforts like Project Damocles to raise awareness, but still voiced reservations. "Rather than blowing the whistle on people, we need to be working together to find solutions," said Lott, who adds that his company is already shipping products that will work in a post-1999 world. "This opens a real door for fear-mongering." Year 2000 legal expert Steven Hock, president of Triaxsys Research, adds that while de Jager's efforts are well-intentioned, they may cause more problems than they solve - both for de Jager and the companies he's targeting. "De Jager faces legal risks in soliciting information about potentially serious problems, and then sharing that information only with the legal department of the company," Hock says. "Why wouldn't he pass it on to regulatory agencies who should know about such problems?" Then there's the issue of bug reports without merit. "The detriment of Project Damocles is that they're going to get emails from many, many people who perceive problems that don't exist," says Hock. "Companies will spend untold hours and dollars dealing with whistle-blowers whose complaints aren't really legitimate. It'll lead to more wasted efforts than real results, I think." But Xavier Roy, the vice president at Litton Enterprise Solutions' year 2000 business unit, says some effort focused on embedded systems is better than nothing. He should know: His clients include hospitals and power companies that run nuclear plants. "Embedded systems haven't gotten the attention they deserve," says Roy. "Just the name - Damocles - indicates there is a threat. This is the only way we can make people realize the severity of the problem." Copyright 1993-97 Wired Ventures Inc. and affiliated companies. All rights reserved.
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