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Monday, May 11, 1998

The return of
a living legend


Lucille Redmond talks to Bob Bemer, program pioneer and the man riding to the world's rescue with plans to put a `silver bullet' into the Year 2000 problem

The year 2000 will be here in a blink. Those in the know are getting very, very scared. Detroit Free Press reports that when Chrysler did a test on one of its plants - turning the computers to December 31st, 1999 - the security system locked down. Nobody could get in or out.

"And you obviously couldn't have paid people, because the time-clock systems didn't work," Chrysler chairman Robert Eaton noted thoughtfully.

A reliable contributor to Politech, the politics and technology mailing list, quotes one longtime programmer who has retired to the country: "I'm looking out for my family, doing an assessment of our needs as a family. Food stocks for a period of time. We already had a portable electric generator."

But it may not come to this. Galloping to the rescue comes 78-year-old Bob Bemer, in his bola tie and twinkly smile.

Now, don't get nervous. Bemer is actually a good bet; he knows what he's doing. He is the programmer who invented the Escape sequence in 1960, a sequence of special characters that sends a command to a device or program, e.g. when you hit the ESC key on your computer.

He was behind the international acceptance of the ASCII standard and says he coined the term COBOL. Until he retired - well, retired officially - 16 years ago, Bemer worked for IBM, Univac, General Electric, Rand Corp., Honeywell and BullGE. Way back in 1979, when many of today's ace programmers were still eating rusks, Bemer looked ahead and was worried; he predicted the Year 2000 (Y2K) crisis in the magazine Interface Age.

Bemer is a legend, credited with inventing the pivotal notion of `timesharing' in a computer's operating system (in 1957). He also invented the concept of word processing in 1959, made the first load-and-go compiler, and wrote rules and procedures for data processing which are used internationally to this day.

Now Bemer says he has a "silver-plated bullet" to stave off the horrors of the millennium bug until a full solution can be found.

The veteran programmer and his team will only cater for IBM mainframe systems running COBOL II under the MVS operating system. Versions for CICS and COBOL VS and LE are planned. So you can't look to Bemer to fix your PC, but since the Y2K problem is most serious on the computer systems that run governments, telecommunications systems, banks, stock markets, hospitals and transport networks, his program could be a lifesaver.

"I did the specifications for Commercial Translator, which then turned into COBOL", says Bemer, who started programming in 1949, before the dawn of recorded history for most computer-literate kids.

COBOL was set up for programmers to use a four-digit date, says Bemer, but they just did not do so. Programmers took a shortcut, and the two-digit year date - 98 instead of 1998 - became the norm, causing the Y2K crisis which now looms when computers will fail to recognise the turn of the century and crash.

"It worried me greatly. I was heavily involved in computer standards - I was a programming adviser from the beginning on the X3 standards committee in the United States (now NIST)." In 1969 and 1970 Bemer's group developed an international date and time standard from ISO, which used the four-digit year - "and furthermore, it did it in the sequence year, month, day, hour, second, which is quite rational".

Programmers were stubborn, however, and stuck to what they were used to - the two-digit year. "I tried to get a national computer year started at that time, and I had 86 organisations in the United States willing to go along with it, much like the International Geophysical Year.

"It was my plan at the time to use that as a vehicle to change to the four-digit year. But President Nixon refused to sign it because he was rather suspicious of computers, and so it never occurred."

Bemer retired in 1982, but now he has come out of retirement to form his own software company, BMR Software - currently a tiny operation with eight staff. "I had to! I couldn't see any progress being made on this problem."

BMR is beta-testing its Vertex 2000 software at the moment. "It is unique," says Bemer, "in that it does not use source code as the basis. We do not care what you wrote in COBOL. We read the object code, just the way the computer does."

Bemer says clearly that this is a crutch, not a permanent solution. "It will help people to get through to when they can do it correctly. You have the option of getting your programs to run correctly - no matter if they run slower. As long as you can get through this period, you might have some time later to do it right."

The program will be capable of being used to convert programs in a matter of one or two months, he says - "we're capable of lapping the field; a late start is not critical".

Bemer is going for franchisees rather than direct users. "We intend to franchise this much like McDonald's - we will not personally sell the hamburgers, we'll sell the logo, design, mechanisms, formulas. It's a complex program product; it does not come packaged, shrink-wrapped, like games for a PC. It has to be installed by knowledgeable people, and those people we will train at our franchisers' request."

BMR is also going to license the patent methodology to other companies for other systems. "We will not ourselves get it done, for example, for Univac or Unisys equipment or the like, but we will permit them to license it if they so wish."

The company is writing different versions for different IBM machines. "It depends very much on the object code; this varies from computer to computer. You may take a COBOL program and compile it for several different computers and each compilation will give you different object code. "We play as though we were the machine itself - we know that the machine is running the programs now, but is doing so wrongly if it discovers a 2000 date. So what we do is essentially `simulate' that computer, and where it itself cannot handle these things, we make provision for an additional software routine to do so."

Some 30 applications have already come in for distributorships, before BMR has even put out offers, and the industry - knowing Bemer's form from his programming history - is watching closely, with cautious interest.

Most companies are taking a slower approach than Bemer to the problem, hiring people to rewrite the millions of lines of code, line by line, to track down every single reference to a date and change it to four digits.

Instead of seeking out all the coded dates, Bemer is letting the dates come to him; his is the only highly automated solution to be found so far which will stave off the day of doom until a full fix is ready. Let's hope it's one of the patches we need.