I'm sure you have all been told not to be on an aeroplane at midnight at the turn of the century. Well, I have some more up-to-date information on the year 2000 problem that might interest you. It seems a city transportation authority - often the source of amusingly disastrous exploits - has implemented a year 2000 fix.The transit authority in Boston has worked hard to make sure it is compliant and its directors have just approved a five-year plan to fix the problem. That's right - a five-year plan. If you are in Boston after 31 December 1999, don't plan to use a subway train.
Smile, though your heart is breaking
The senate hearing surrounding Microsoft CEO Bill Gates' behaviour at the US Department of Justice hearing has been covered by every news service on earth, and something I will not bore you with. Instead, I have some more interesting information about Gates and the hearing. A body language consultant examined his gestures, movements and facial expressions during the grilling he underwent from senator Orrin Hatch. The expert's findings make Gates barely recognisable as the shy, awkward, super geek, propeller head we all know he is.
Hilka Klinkenburg - whose name sounds like a brand of mountaineering equipment - said Gates was impressive, considering the pressure he was under.
As Hatch became annoyed when Gates refused to answer any of his questions with a direct yes or no, technology's favourite super geek did not even flinch. His manner was non-threatening and sincere, and his favourite palms-up gesture, which he is known to use when explaining things, apparently conveyed honesty.
However, when Klinkenburg claimed Gates had a Princess Di quality in the way he tilts his head and looks at people, I started wondering if Klinkenburg wasn't reading too much into it. What he was saying is surely more important than how he was saying it, I thought. But then Klinkenburg was redeemed - apparently, Gates made a damning mistake when he said the internet is 'the most exciting example of innovation in the march of progress'.
While making this statement, he was shaking his head and forcing a tight, insincere smile.
The awkward smile, which image consultants and coaches have tried to drag out of him, reappeared when he was talking about his competitors and their innovations. Now that's more like it. That's the Gates we all recognise.
Xerox gets connected
Document and imaging giant Xerox has sneakily moved into the indirect channel recently by buying Intelligent Electronics for $415million. The move is designed to get Xerox into the service market as it tries to transfer its copying know-how into the digital age.
The company is particularly interested in Intelligent Electronics' XL Connect subsidiary, a services Var which claims to help businesses improve the flow of information among employees, customers and suppliers. Last year, I interviewed Xerox chief executive Paul Allaire and suggested Xerox could be thinking about acquisitions. He was emphatic - the company would increase its indirect sales and would never jeopardise its relationships with its important reseller channel, no matter what it bought.
Allaire now says the XL Connect purchase will give Xerox 'hundreds of talented and trained network specialists who will design and build publishing, workflow and other document solutions'. Xerox will have to be careful that those sales staff, as Xerox employees rather than Var employees, will not compete with Xerox's respected reseller channel.
Swingin' with Bertha
Just when you thought Gates was finally out of the spotlight, he creeps back under. I can't even keep him out of this column. His latest move is into advertising. Big Bill is advertising Big Bertha. Bertha is not a woman, a monster or a pet name for a computer - it's a golf club. Who would have thought that shy, retiring Gates would appear on telly to swing his One Wood?
Look out for those flipped sixes
If the Euro, the year 2000 and Microsoft operating system upgrades didn't create enough problems for computer users - and sales opportunities for Vars - there is another little gem in the works. It is called the 9999 problem, but it has nothing to do with emergency services, Michael Burke stuttering or a stuck numeric key. It has more to do with boring accountants.
To avoid the problems of financial applications that try to divide by zero and crash, many packages will not allow users to input the number zero at all. Instead, the convention is to signify zero with 9999, which the package then treats as if it were zero but knows it cannot use it as a denominator. This has worked well for years, but disaster looms.
On 9 September 1999, the date field for systems using 'ddmmyy' or 'mmddyy' formats will read 9999. All payments, transactions and documents dated for that day could simply disappear.
Many companies facing this problem will solve it by default when they switch to year 2000-compliant date fields, but I think this issue has been taken a back seat in the hype over the millennium bug, so it is worth making sure your customers, suppliers and friends know about it. And make sure that when you invoice those customers for work done to solve the 9999 problem next year, don't date the bill 9 September, just in case.
Death and the maiden
Do you find many Websites boring? Then try Death Penalty News at www.smu.edu/~deathpen for excitement. It has news and information on current executions in the US, and even pictures of executions taking place. OK, so there are no pictures, I lied. The site, however, is against the death penalty and contains links to help those opposed to capital punishment tell the relevant authorities.
James Harding is US editor of VNU Newswire, based in San Francisco.
He can be reached at [email protected] or on 00 1 650 306 0879.
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