One of the first critical dates of the millennium bug--the April 1 start of fiscal year 2000 in Canada, Japan and New York state--passed with barely a hitch Thursday, offering a small but encouraging sign of progress in repairing the computer glitch known as Y2K.
April 1 had been marked as an important checkpoint in the year 2000 effort because it was one of the first dates in which some large computer systems would begin handling the two-digit source of the millennium bug: the year "00."
As it turned out, Canada, Japan and New York easily passed their first test, although they cautioned that it was a tiny victory since the passage of April 1 tested only the portion of their systems that deal with the fiscal year. In addition, there is still the possibility of problems emerging as their systems look deeper into the new fiscal year.
"It is an important date, but Jan. 1 is still the real test," said Gary Davis, year 2000 project manager for New York. "We've been working on this since April 1996, so having this confirmation is still gratifying."
The Year 2000 Project Office for Canada's Treasury Board Secretariat reported no problems with government computer systems.
"So far it's been a nonevent," said Jim Bimson of the Year 2000 office. "We haven't heard anything today, but I'm not that surprised since we really have to wait a while for some transactions to occur. Most of the computers are still working in the last fiscal year."
An official from the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry said, "We have no reports of these sorts of problems."
The year 2000 problem stems from the programming tradition of using two digits to represent years. In 2000, some computers could become confused over the date "00," which could be interpreted as either 1900 or 2000. The ambiguity could lead to computer malfunctions or miscalculations.
In the last few years, companies and government agencies have spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to repair the problem. But even with months of testing, the results are not always clear, since computer errors can be subtle.
Davis said his department is concerned about several other key dates that could cause problems.
He said the two most critical are April 9--the 99th day of 1999, which is stated in some computer databases as 9999--and Sept. 9, 1999, which is often stored as 9/9/99. A string of 9s is sometimes used in programs as file markers. Both dates could cause malfunctions.
One of the first large-scale tests of the year 2000 problem came in February when the large computer-reservations system used by travel agents began selling tickets for travel after Jan. 1, 2000. That system also survived the transition with no problems.
April 1 was significant because it was one of the first major year 2000 tests of government agencies, which generally have been slower to act than companies.
Lou Marcoccio, year 2000 research director for the technology consulting and research firm Gartner Group Inc., cautioned that in the overall scheme of the millennium bug, April 1 is barely a noticeable point.
The bulk of year 2000 failures will begin to take place after July, as more companies and governments start their fiscal years and more computer systems look forward into the next year, according to a recent Gartner Group study of 15,000 companies in 87 countries.