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The New Yorker - January 12, 1998

Nerd File


JANUARY 12, 1998

A computer pioneer comes out of the
past to fix the year 2000 glitch.

Bob Bemer can’t program a VCR and is baffled by Windows, but he believes he has the solution to a disaster of untold proportions: the so-called millennium bug, which, on January 1, 2000, could cause many of the world’s computer systems to crash.

Pimply computer whizzes don’t take Bob Bemer or his proposed cure very seriously, but that’s because most don’t know who he is. The first I.B.M. employee profiled in these pages (in 1957), Bemer was responsible for more computing breakthroughs than just about anybody, including ASCII text—the universal standard for computer characters—and the escape sequence, a complicated maneuver that controls laser printing. In 1979, in an article in the now defunct magazine Interface Age, Bemer predicted the upcoming Big Bug. Having Bemer return now to correct a deeply rooted electronic-data problem is like having the Wright Brothers back to scrutinize the TWA crash. Bemer, who favors bob ties, is seventy-seven, and that makes him ancient history in a field in which, if you’re older than twenty-five, you’re toast.

Bemer says that he knows exactly how to fix mainframe computers internal-calendar systems, many of which currently designate years with two digits and can’t tell if “00” means 2000 or 1900. “Essentially, we designed the car—we know we can drive it,” Bemer said the other day, sounding like Ross Perot in campaign mode. “But now we’ve got to take this into the Sahara.” He admits to a little guilt, having helped design COBOL, the world’s dominant mainframe programming language, in the first place.

When Bemer presented his idea to companies such as E.D.S., the information-services giant, and the investment bank Morgan Stanley, he got a polite “No thanks” or, at best, a “Let’s wait and see.” Most companies are approaching the problem by painstakingly rewriting billions of lines of highly complex computer language. Bemer’s solution, which he calls Vertex 2000, is much more elegant, boring down to the level of “object code,” which the computer understands directly.

This month, Bemer and his Dallas-based B.M.R. Software will formally announce Vertex 2000. And at least one big company is seriously considering embracing his rescue plan: Bell Atlantic is running a test of Bemer’s product. “We think his solution is real,” Skip Patterson, the executive director of Bell Atlantic’s Year 2000 Program Office, says. “‘It’s simple and it’s quick. It’s the most highly automated solution we’ve found, and that’s its real attraction.”

Bemer says that his scheme costs only a fraction of current anti-bug estimates, which run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. “If we’ve got to give it away, we’ll do it,” he says. “Of course,” he adds, grinning, “that’s not our plan.” After fifteen years in retirement, he could use the money—and the recognition. “You take the escape sequence. I never got a nickel for that. It went into the public domain.” This time will be different, he says. “‘I’ll see you on the History Channel.” — RUSS BAKER

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