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The Millennium Bug

Week of October 16, 1999

First published in the RISKS Digest.

It is now finally clear to me what all the hysteria about Y2K is really all about.

It is not about stingy COBOL programmers using two BCD bytes instead of four in WORKING STORAGE.

It is not about embedded systems collapsing, rendering our traffic intersections, our satellite systems, and other vital technologies useless.

It is about the latest in a long debilitating line of systemware products from Redmond, Washington, USA.

This week I received the WinNT Magazine newsletter, with an introduction from Paul Thurrott, who describes himself as a 'recovering Windows 2000 (Win2K) beta tester'. Thurrott is largely positive about this monster, but does add that hardware requirements 'have risen from a lowly Pentium to a 300MHz Pentium II with 128MB of RAM' and winds up by saying:

But I suspect that when the Win2K beta ends, a lot of testers are going to find themselves balking at the upgrade, at least for the short term. Suddenly, that wonderful ugly duckling we know as NT 4.0 doesn't look so bad after all.

It just dawned on me - namely that the great, great majority of PC users world-wide are home computer enthusiasts, and the great, great majority of these enthusiasts use their computer primarily - or even exclusively - to access the Internet, and that they demonstrably do not need anywhere near the kind of machine necessary to run Win2K to do that, and that they don't need Win2K at all.

And it dawned on me further that this would hardly change anything. Home computers running 16 bit operating systems might be perfectly capable of rendering an enjoyable cyber experience, and I believe Compaq and Netscape have shown that if one only wants to surf the net that one does not need an operating system - and one certainly does not need Windows - at all.

But it would be quite unrealistic to assume that the market analysts and spin doctors in Redmond have suddenly, after decades of incredibly clumsy successes, suddenly got it all wrong. A gray shadow of unreality creeps closer, hovering, threatening, foreboding, and I can literally feel it. Here we have an operating system destined to be one of the greatest and most bugged monsters of all time offering us literally nothing most of us will ever need and forcing us, moreover, to upgrade our hardware at a great expense - and all of this is for naught, all of this gives 95%+ of the world's computer users absolutely nothing - and yet we all know how things are going to go in the long run anyway, don't we?

The boggle continues. Ballmer insisted Windows 95 would run on a 386 with 4MB RAM. I knew he had to be crossing his fingers behind his back and so I went out and bought a machine with a Pentium and a walloping 16MB RAM and it turned out I was right. Yet the quantum leap from a 386 and 4MB to a Pentium and 16MB is nothing compared to the leap expected now. I have for several years run courses in NT programming using first the NT 4 Shell Technology Update and then NT 4 itself, with MSVC running on top, with only 32MB RAM installed on low-end Pentium machines, and we have never had a hitch. We have of late attempted to demonstrate Win2K on classroom machines with far faster processors and many times the RAM and had to abandon our efforts. Windows 2000 simply peaks the CPU meter even in idle and then calmly stands still.

I keep thinking about that comment from Microsoft that another RISKS reader recounted to me: 'that's not the way we do things at Microsoft - when it gets too slow we just throw more hardware at it.' And for those of you that followed the ripples from these forums in the Daily Telegraph's Connect supplement, yes my company today does have that 'Windows Explorer' replacement mentioned there, and it does not consume a quarter of a megabyte on disk as its Redmond counterpart, but only 26KB. 26,624 bytes. As one user wrote to us: 'I can finally throw that Microsoft Windows Explorer in the trash bin where it belongs.'

It is important to realize that our conditions were not better than Redmond's - quite on the contrary. We did not have access to, or ever consider availing ourselves of a staff several times the size of Redmond's. We did not work long hours in our offices and sleep on our futons as one is expected to do in Redmond. We just wrote the program. Like anything else we write. And over a time span considerably more realistic than Redmond used for Windows Explorer.

Bloat is not unavoidable. Bloat is not a necessary evil.

Bloat is always, has always been, and will always be a totally indefensible blot on computer science.

I fail to see how anyone - even a band of zonked-out Microserfs - can take what was almost an operating system - NT - almost totally based on, if not identical with DEC's VMS, and systematically turn it into the biggest, most bloated bug farm in the history of computer science - and, for every turn in the road, for every day and week that went by, not improve the code and make the system run faster, but literally ruin the code and make the system run slower, or run not at all. I truly think that the ordinary laws of logic, of human intelligence, somehow fail to apply in the Pacific Northwest, and am starting to facetiously wonder if David Lynch wasn't onto something after all. Is Laura really Melinda French? Doesn't WHG3 have the faintest resemblance to her father, and SB a bit too much in common with Kyle's night porter?

For those fanatics who said all along we should leave the big cities, that people would drop like flies in droves from the hypothermia - I am beginning to wonder. For the first time I am getting scared of the Millennium - and not for the COBOL bug, but for the Redmond Millennium Bug. The wife is now negotiating with the realtors at Prayer Lake to see if they will part with some of their precious real estate and thereby help save a few more lives.

PS. Anyone who wants a further peek at this 'Explorer killer' of ours to see for themselves that it really can be done is welcome to drop a line at the address below. We'll send along a complimentary copy.

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