2020 in review: Revenge of the Y2K bug as lazy fix takes down software

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The year began with digital havoc, when a computer glitch known as the Y2020 bug took payment systems, parking meters and a wrestling video game offline.

Y2020 arose from a lazy fix to the Y2K (or millennium) bug. This was the concern that computer systems that saved years as two digits – 99, say, instead of 1999 – would treat 00 as 1900 rather than 2000. Thanks to mass patching in 1999, this didn’t happen. Yet it turns out that an estimated 80 per cent of computers solved this using a cheap and quick method known as “windowing”, in which all dates from 00 to 20 would be treated as the 2000s rather than the 1900s. When January 2020 rolled around, those systems reached the end of that window and reset to 1920.

The issue now seems to be under control, but 19 January 2038 was set to be the next troublesome date for Linux computers, which count the date in seconds from 1 January 1970. The date is stored as a 32-bit integer, and its storage capacity would be exceeded at this point.

However, a potential solution emerged this October, postponing the problem for another 400 years: an increase to the effective size of timestamps. The feature will mean that dates beyond 2038 won’t pose a problem until 2486 – the next year to worry about.

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