Japan Inc. has finally awakened to the Year 2000 problem -- and look who it is seeking help from. This spring that nation's chip industry is expected to ask the World Semiconductor Council (WSC) for aid in launching a crash program to deal with this threat.
But forget it. It's too late now to launch any remedial action to get rid of the Millennium Bug. Nevertheless, it comes as a bit of a shock that the chip makers would go to the new global council with a real problem in the first place. And while the WSC may not be able to handle the elusive Y2K problem, it may be coming of age as a useful industry tool.
So far, the U.S. semiconductor industry has worked for more than two years to ferret out any Y2K booby traps in which a computer mistakenly interprets the year 2000 as 1900. So far, the Americans have had mixed results. But U.S. device makers are probably in fair shape insofar as getting their fabs Year 2000-compliant. Overseas, the picture may be a whole lot bleaker.
The U.S. Semiconductor Industry Association first brought up the Y2K problem at the WSC annual meeting last year and a task force was asked to look into the matter. Now the foreign members have grown increasingly concerned, especially the Japanese.
In January, seven industry groups in that country issued a position paper asking microcontroller vendors and systems houses that are using embedded MCUs to speed up their compliance testing. The coalition requested the companies involved to post their answers on the Internet in order to get the word out as soon as possible.
Foreign chip makers have already benefited to some degree from the intensive U.S. program, which was led by Sematech and a joint SEMI-Sematech equipment group. That effort zeroed-in on major tool sets used in U.S. fabs and worked with suppliers to ensure that their equipment was made Y2K compliant. Foreign semiconductor makers using the same production equipment will get certified gear.
The U.S. Semiconductor Industry Association has an equally scary Y2K time bomb on its hands with embedded microcontrollers, something that would impact foreign chip makers just as much. Here, an unknown number of embedded MCUs could still be programmed with the two-digit year, which could throw off timed functions.
The SIA tried unsuccessfully last year to enlist U.S. political leaders to lead a national education campaign about microcontrollers and the Year 2000. When it couldn't get anyone's attention, the trade group put out its own "white paper" alert. But this move was greeted with a huge public yawn.
Probably the SIA's biggest worry here is that its members might be engulfed in a flood of Y2K liability suits over MCUs that were hit by the problem. Chip makers claim they aren't responsible, because any timing functions were embedded in read-only memory developed by the customer and fabricated as part of the chip.
At least one good thing may be coming from all of this. At last, the embryonic global chip council is starting to function like a real body. Spawned as part of the latest version of the U.S.-Japan Semiconductor Agreement in 1996, the WSC had been expected by most observers to be little more than a feckless debating society.
Now it is taking on meaningful work. It's not only diving into Y2K, but into environmental and safety issues, dumping problems, and even the safeguards designed to stop the International Monetary Fund from bailing out South Korean chip makers.
The WSC certainly started out doing its job better than anyone thought it could. To join the council, a country or trading bloc had to eliminate all chip tariffs. The U.S. SIA leveraged this requirement to force the European Union to lift its chip duties and to get the South Koreans and Taiwanese to end their tariffs.
This approach ended up not working with China, however. The Chinese originally showed interest in joining the WSC, especially since Taiwan was clamoring to join. A plan where both countries would join at the same time was aborted when China dropped the ball in lifting its chip tariffs. As a result, the WSC will be welcoming only the Taiwan Semiconductor Industry Association as its newest member at its meeting this spring in Italy. This will mean, however, that all of the world's major chip-making regions will now be represented in the WSC.
But the global chip council has something else to worry about. Japan now is floating a trial balloon to form a new world semiconductor association, which would be organized on top of the existing national semiconductor trade groups. The SIA is opposed completely to the Japanese proposal.
It isn't clear what such a global chip association would do. Lobbying -- the raison d'tre of industry associations -- is a national affair. And a global council, far from solving any chip disputes between different countries or regions, could even make such matters worse.
From this corner, the WSC looks as well-suited as any group now to deal with global industry problems.