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Windows 2000 systems to debut three weeks early

Major PC makers will begin selling systems with the new operating system later this month--long before Microsoft formally unveils it.

    Major PC makers will begin selling Windows 2000 systems on Jan. 24, nearly three weeks before Microsoft formally unveils the new operating system.

    Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and IBM are among the PC manufacturers that will be offering PCs, notebooks and servers before Feb. 17, the official launch date for Windows 2000.

    After several delays, the software giant recently completed writing, testing and revising the code for the operating system, widely thought 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 yesterday--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."

    While PC manufacturers can 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.

    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.

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

    Microsoft is adopting a new pricing scheme for those that 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 it is 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.

    "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.

    Despite the early release, Microsoft is pulling out all the stops for the official launch event, Windows 2000 Conference & Expo, which runs from Feb. 15-17 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

    Dell chief executive Michael Dell will deliver the opening address while Compaq CEO Michael Capellas will have the keynote address. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates will give the Windows 2000 launch address.

    Microsoft is targeting Windows 2000 mainly at businesses and a successor to Windows 98, code-named Millennium, to consumers.

    At a press conference yesterday, when he stepped down as CEO, Gates spoke about upcoming consumer versions and the addition of emerging technologies such as digital music and digital photography.

    Gates said, "We're building a lot of things into an update to Windows coming out this next year, and then there will be another consumer update the year after that."

    Windows 2000 adds features long available on Windows 9x, such as USB, FireWire and DVD and offers simpler system and network management than Windows NT.

    Compaq is set to begin selling its long-awaited iPaq on Jan. 24, ahead of the Windows 2000 launch. One version of the iPaq runs the new OS.

    IBM will unveil a new ThinkPad 600 notebook with Windows 2000 and update other models in the weeks following. 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 is expected to begin selling OmniBook 4150 and OmniBook 900 notebooks with Windows 2000 on Jan. 24, but most desktops won't get the new operating system until February.

    Gateway systems shipping on Jan. 24 with Windows 2000 include the E-Series 1400 and 4200 desktops and the Solo 2150, 2550 and 9300 portables.