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PC makers get early crack at Windows Me

With a nod to the back-to-school selling season, Microsoft apparently gives manufacturers the go-ahead to start shipping Me systems to consumers.

PC makers have started shipping the Windows Me system a month ahead of their scheduled release.

Microsoft apparently gave PC makers permission to begin delivering Windows Me systems to consumers well in advance of the Sept. 14 date set for shrink-wrapped versions of the software to go on sale. The move is intended partly to drum up interest in the consumer operating system and to take advantage of the lucrative back-to-school selling season, sources said.

"The advantage of making (available) Windows Me early this way is because it keeps people from delaying a purchase," PC Data analyst Stephen Baker said. "You are causing some (sales) dislocation during a busy time of the year, so any way you can minimize that is important. It's a tough time to manage this kind of transition."

"This is not an unusual thing; this is something there is precedence for," said Windows Me leader product manager Greg Sullivan. "This is part of a whole industry effort to make sure consumers have great offerings by Sept. 14."

Sullivan said the early availability was in part spurred by the lucrative back-to-school buying season. "When you think about this release, it is solely focused on the consumer, the home user, so that's great timing."

Gateway started taking orders for Me systems Aug. 12 and began shipping systems to consumers this week, said a source familiar with the situation. Test orders today to Gateway's online order site confirmed Windows Me systems are immediately available, with delivery dates of about a week.

Dell Computer started taking orders Monday, with lead times of about six days before shipping, according to a Dell sales representative.

IBM will begin offering its first Windows Me systems Aug. 29. Initially, six models of its new NetVista brand of PCs will come with the operating system, said a source close to IBM. The company will start selling two other families of PCs with Windows Me on Sept. 12.

While Compaq is currently shipping Windows Me systems to dealers, the company does not plan to begin selling them until after the official Sept. 14 launch date, said a source familiar with Compaq's strategy.

Hewlett-Packard has already shipped systems to retailers, and its first Windows Me systems could go on sale in stores as early as this weekend, said a source close to the company. HP started taking direct orders via its Web site on Wednesday.

Micron had planned to start taking orders for Windows Me systems next week, but a sales representative said a technical glitch has pushed the date back until early September.

While some PC makers are rushing Windows Me systems out the door, some problems persist. A source close to Micron said incompatibility with some DVD drives accounted for its delay shipping Windows Me systems.

Dell faces similar problems and does not offer DVD as an option on consumer Dimension L systems with Windows Me, although the drive is available on Dimension 4100 and XPS B models.

This wouldn't be the first time Microsoft has given PC makers such leeway to ship a new operating system early. Systems loaded with Windows 2000 went on sale two weeks before its Feb. 17 gala launch.

Windows Me is Microsoft's consumer upgrade to Windows 98 Second Edition and should not be confused with Windows 2000, which is aimed more toward corporate users.

Microsoft released final Windows Me software code to manufacturers June 19. Typically it takes about six weeks of testing and preparation before PC makers are ready to ship systems, following the availability of final, or gold, code.

Consumers who already have PCs will have to wait until mid-September before getting their hands on a copy of Windows Me. Earlier this month, Microsoft said it would offer the consumer operating system at an introductory price of $59, but some online retailers are already advertising Windows Me for less.

Those who hope to snag Windows Me for free have been disappointed, however. Microsoft has been having trouble keeping a Windows Me sweepstakes Web site operational. Microsoft is giving away 50 boxed copies of Windows Me a day, but technical glitches have prevented many consumers from entering the contest.