OAKLAND, CALIF. — Daylight saving time comes three weeks early this year courtesy of a law passed by Congress, and information technology workers are clocking extra hours to make sure our computers know it.
The concern – that time errors could cause software malfunctions and network hiccups starting March 11 – is drawing comparisons to the much-ballyhooed Y2K millennium bug. But there's no need to buy duct tape and a 10-gallon can of beans – nothing even close to a digital apocalypse is around the corner, say experts.
Instead, potential problems are expected to mostly affect management teams and road warriors who rely on computer networks and smart cellphones to schedule meetings and conduct business across time zones.
While the prospect of missed meetings may elicit winks and sly grins, the cost borne by businesses to handle the problem is no joke. This "Y2K-lite" serves up another reminder that software design may not be agile enough to stave off more expensive and disruptive events in the future, say some analysts.
"The underlying message here is we built a world which is critically dependent on information technology and particularly on software where that software is simply far too inflexible to deal with real-world changes at the rate at which they occur," says Andy Kyte, an analyst with Gartner Research, a technology consulting firm in Stamford, Conn. "Y2K was one manifestation. Daylight saving time is another. They will keep coming along."
Most software development involves trade-offs between time, reliability, and flexibility. Designing for future contingencies often gets short shrift, he says.
But making changes now to accommodate the daylight saving time (DST) shift could cost between $500 million and $1 billion, according to Gartner Research estimates.
Multinational corporations and large firms that rely on custom software are facing the biggest clean-up tasks. Several experts mentioned time errors in large, vital systems such as airline scheduling networks and online banking as unlikely worst-case scenarios next week. Bank of America, for one, says it's fully prepared for Sunday with updated systems.
For network administrators like Susan Bradley, the preparations have meant working through several weekends to conduct tests and install software patches.
"I hope that we will come to the 12th and people will say, 'What was all the fuss about?" says Ms. Bradley, who works at an accounting firm in Fresno, Calif. "[But] there could be little gotchas that we're just not aware of."
Bradley manages roughly 40 computers, but BlackBerrys and other smart phones with calendar features posed the biggest challenges. "[Since Y2K] we've had seven more years of tech to get into our pockets, our purses, and our phones than we had back then. We're using a lot more calendar invites."
The problem isn't without a silver lining for software vendors who decide not to provide DST updates for older versions, as it nudges clients to pay for upgrades.
Microsoft has created free updates, known as patches, for newer versions of Microsoft Windows such as XP. Microsoft's latest software, Vista, was shipped after Congress passed a law in 2005 to lengthen DST for energy conservation reasons. Microsoft also provides customers with instructions to manually update their systems, or for $4,000 they can receive a software patch to versions six to 10 years old, a decision criticized by Bradley and others.
However, defenders of the practice say that most companies do support their software for several years, and that it would unreasonable for them to dust off ancient code. For newer software, companies such as Microsoft and Macintosh are now pushing updates seamlessly over the Internet – a trend that analysts say will shield many average consumers from DST hassles.
"If you look at the [software] that's come out in the last three or four years, there's generally patches available for it. And the patches are very easy to deploy," says Jeff Regan, an information technology adviser whose website, www.reganfamily.ca/dst/, compiles a wide variety of patches and instructions.
He advises people, however, to put the date and time in the subject line of meeting invitations during the three-week window after March 11. Users of Microsoft Windows can also make sure their systems are ready by double-clicking on the clock on their computer screen and manually changing the date to March 12. The time zone at the bottom should change to "daylight."
After next week, techies will still have other systemic shocks to contemplate and, sooner or later, design around.
"At some point, it is quite likely that the phone system might need more than 10 digits in the USA. If you think daylight saving time has been a bit of a glitch zone, wait until you have to go to a 12-digit phone number," says Mr. Kyte.