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Windows 2000 arrives ahead of schedule

Computers loaded with the new operating system are hitting store shelves and Web sites, three weeks before the official launch.

Computers outfitted with Windows 2000 will hit store shelves and Web sites today as Microsoft allows PC makers to start quietly selling its new business operating system three weeks before the official launch.

Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and IBM are among the PC manufacturers that will offer PCs, notebooks and servers with Microsoft's newest OS for business computers. Although beta versions have been available before today, the computers coming out now will be the first to contain the final version of the long-awaited--and often delayed--software.

One thing customers won't get is a lot of hype. Microsoft is allowing these companies to seed the market with Windows 2000 boxes as long as they don't publicize it too much. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant plans to hold a gala release party in San Francisco on Feb. 17 and doesn't want to deflate the event. Bill Gates, Dell CEO Michael Dell and Compaq CEO Michael Capellas will attend, among others.

After several delays, the software giant recently completed writing, testing and revising the code for Windows 2000, estimated to be the most important software development project in the company's history. Windows 2000 will also be the centerpiece of Microsoft's overall strategy going forward, designed to power, enhance and augment all of the company's other software and Internet offerings.

Top Microsoft executives have been lauding the new OS for some time. Last year, Steve Ballmer--who was handed the CEO job earlier this month--said: "Windows 2000 is the most important product we've done since Windows 95. We have great hope for the product for the business user--it's spot on."

A Microsoft representative confirmed that some PC makers would be selling Windows 2000 systems before the operating system's official unveiling. "It's a way of filling the 'channel,' so that things are ready for Feb. 17," the representative said.

But while PC manufacturers may begin selling Windows 2000 systems and advertising them on their Web sites, they are restricted by Microsoft from otherwise promoting them--including briefing the press, said one industry source.

People looking to buy retail copies of Windows 2000 will have to wait until mid-February, the Microsoft representative added. The only way to get the operating system before then is by purchasing a new PC preloaded with it.

Microsoft is adopting a new pricing scheme for those who buy boxed copies or Windows 2000 licenses. The desktop version, Windows 2000 Professional, will sell for an estimated retail price of $319, the same as for Windows NT 4 Workstation. The upgrade price from Windows NT is $149 and $219 from Windows 95 or 98.

The five-user upgrade version of Windows 2000 server will cost $499, or $999 for the full-retail version. A 10-user version will go for $1,199, or $599 as an upgrade from Windows NT or Novell NetWare.

PC makers in the past have typically waited for Microsoft's official product announcement before shipping new systems. But the change is not surprising, said International Data Corp. analyst Roger Kay earlier this month.

"There is one justification for it, which is that you want the channel to be full of product before the launch date," Kay said. Microsoft is betting big on Windows 2000 and having systems out there before the launch party could help build excitement, he said.

Microsoft released Windows 2000 code to PC makers on Dec. 15. It typically takes about six weeks of testing before PC manufacturers are ready to ship systems with a new operating system.

IBM will unveil a new ThinkPad 600 notebook with Windows 2000 and update other models in the weeks following, according to people familiar with the company's plans. Big Blue will also start selling PC300 GL, PC300 GL small-business series and PC300 PL desktop models with Windows 2000, as well as the IntelliStation E Pro and M Pro workstations.

HP will start to sell OmniBook 4150 and OmniBook 900 notebooks with Windows 2000 today, but most desktops won't get the new operating system until February, sources there said.

Compaq will start selling its long-awaited iPaq today, ahead of the Windows 2000 launch. One version of the iPaq runs the new OS.

Gateway systems shipping today with Windows 2000 include the E-Series 1400 and 4200 desktops and the Solo 2150, 2550 and 9300 portables.