Daylight Saving Chaos

Which “genius” decided to extend daylight saving to prevent confusion during the Commonwealth Games? It’s already proving a problem — even more-so than first thought. Seasoned systems administrators are having trouble today with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux computers. When people return to work tomorrow it’ll be even worse…

I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t blog about geek stuff. The blogosphere is already full of geeks talking to other geeks about their computers. But this issue has ramifications well beyond geekdom. It illustrates how poorly thought out the change was, and how poorly the software industry responded.

The Australian states which use daylight saving time over summer (NSW, Vic, ACT, Tas and SA) normally revert to standard time on the last Sunday in March. Today, in other words. But Melbourne’s Commonwealth Games visitors would be “confused” (apparently) by changing time on this final day of the Games.

So these states decided that daylight saving would be extended a week until 2 April — just for this year. But most computer operating systems only know the “normal” rules. Unless they were updated, they’ve already changed back to standard time earlier today.

For Windows users, this was all handled very poorly by Microsoft.

Mac owners didn’t fare much better.

  • Apple only provided the fix automatically for Macs running the latest “Tiger” version of OS X. Earlier versions needed a manual patch — which most users wouldn’t have known about.
  • Appointments I’ve recorded for next week in Microsoft Entourage for Macintosh are showing up one hour later than they should. There’s no update from Microsoft — not even a mention that there might be a problem. (Mind you, every appointment I’ve made over summer is labelled “Event and computer time zones do not match,” even though they do. Clearly there are deeper problems with the time code in Entourage.)

And some Linux machines reverted to standard time, even though properly maintained, thanks to subtle software bugs.

But that’s just the beginning…

  • Patching the operating system isn’t enough. Some programs use their own time conversion code instead of the operating system’s — including the Java programming language and (presumably) Entourage.
  • Devices such as routers with embedded software won’t update themselves anyway. If people are using, say, the “parental control” features of a Netgear router to block Internet access after 9pm, those rules will be wrong by an hour.
  • Computers are responsible for logging all sorts of information automatically. How can we be certain that the logs are correct? What happens when computer logs are the only legal record of when a transaction took place?
  • The problem extends beyond Australia. _Anyone_ doing business with Australia will find their appointments scheduled for the wrong time. How many systems administrators in Hong Kong will think that an update to Australian time zones affects them?
  • The media stories we’ve seen so far don’t look at the impact beyond people’s diaries being wrong. Computers run all sorts of automated processes. End-of-day procedures set to happen at midnight will run an hour early.
  • Suggestions that you just change your computer’s time zone manually don’t work in South Australia. SA normally runs at GMT+0930, and most software doesn’t give you GMT+1030 as an option. And in any event, this won’t fix the international coordination issues.

But of course all this is too late. The Magic Time has already passed. And we’ll find out tomorrow how much of a cock-up this has been.

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3 comments

  1. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    During the NSW Parliamentary debate on this daylight saving change, the only concern was the time of sunrise in the State’s west. Not a single word about computers, technology or the impact upon international business.

    What’s more, they’ve made it easier to fiddle with time in the future, allowing changes to daylight saving dates by regulation rather than changing the Act itself.

  2. Geoff Dodd’s avatar

    Hi Stilgherrian, I’m in Perth, W.A. and we’ve got a 3 year trial of daylight saving running over here. With Ms Win.XP I simply went +1 on the time zone, from +08 to +09 and it solved my times in all software I run. But my needs are simple.

  3. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    Geoff, you’re right that this works “if your needs are simple.” Very simple: If you only communicate with people in the same time zone, if your emails or other timestamped processes don’t need to generate an audit trail, and if you can manually update every computer in your care.

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