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Surprise! You can already get your new Windows XP personal computer -- a month earlier than you may have thought. Thing is, that might not be your top priority right now.

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won't officially release its new operating system until Oct. 25, PC manufacturers already are offering machines with the new software installed.

It's a departure from past practice, but Microsoft has a couple of powerful inducements to let it happen. One is its own antitrust woes. The other is the hope, now less realistic in light of the events of Sept. 11, that XP will spur sales for the hurting computer industry.

In any event, Microsoft is allowing the computer manufacturers to upstage its own promotion, something it didn't do with other major upgrades.

"That's unusual," says Rob Enderle, a research fellow at information technology consulting firm Giga Information Group. "Typically, corporate customers could get PCs early, but Microsoft has always restricted retail hardware vendors from having the product in the market before its official release date. The thinking, of course, is that if the product has already been selling for a month, how excited are consumers going to get about it when it's 'officially' launched." (Microsoft is a Giga client.)


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said it started hawking XP machines over its Web site last Friday.



Web site is also currently offering the new operating system on some of its PCs, and a customer service representative said a machine with XP could be purchased Tuesday.

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says it will have XP computers on retail store shelves as early as Sept. 24, or next Monday, and will begin offering XP boxes over its Web site this Friday.



representatives didn't immediately return messages, and it wasn't clear from the company's Web site if it has started shipping XP machines.

Spokespersons in Microsoft's XP group didn't immediately return phone calls to ask about the ramped-up schedule. But observers have been speculating for months that the software giant is pushing XP out the door as quickly as possible to avoid any delays that arise from the government's ongoing antitrust case against the firm. In June, a federal appeals court upheld a lower ruling that Microsoft had illegally maintained its monopoly in computer operating systems, and the case is now in its penalty phase.

"Microsoft clearly has other issues involved this time, so in this case, they're going to allow vendors to go out early," Enderle says. "I think they're convinced that if they can get the product selling, the chance of someone getting an injunction and stopping its release are reduced."

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who's now presiding over the case, extended the deadline for the parties to submit a procedural outline for the trial until 10 a.m. Thursday. It's the second time she's granted a delay due to last week's terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. She also pushed back a meeting between the parties from Sept. 21 to Sept. 28, at their request.

But there's another reason to get XP out early though: the PC industry's own stupor, which likely will be only exacerbated by the terrorism.

Given those attacks, you might be thinking about spending money on cell phones for each of your kids, rather than a new computer with all the bells and whistles you previously thought were important.

Rob Wait, worldwide business manger for H-P's consumer unit, said there was more urgency now among manufacturers to get XP machines out than during past software releases, but he attributed that to the excitement surrounding XP, not the industry's malaise.

"The fact that the market is looking for exciting new things to do with the PC right now means there is slightly more pressure on us to get the product into customers' hands," Wait says. "All the manufacturers are trying to get it out."

While Wait said he wouldn't want to speculate on whether PC demand would drop in the wake of last week's terror, and the assumed erosion in consumer confidence that will come with it, Giga's Enderle said people aren't thinking about PCs right now.

"When folks are scared for their life and safety, they tend not to buy things that aren't directly tied to that fear," Enderle said. "They might buy new locks for their house, or anything that gives them a higher degree of security, like a cell phone might, but PCs are not positioned as devices that would make them feel more secure."

And if consumers don't rush out to buy new XP-loaded PCs because of their changed priorities, that's bad news for manufacturers and Microsoft. Both were counting on XP to spur sales, and hoping that such a boost would lift them out of the current technology spending slump they find themselves in.

Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Kevin McCarthy stuck a fork in that theory Tuesday, cutting his own assumptions about such growth because of the fearful new world Americans find themselves living in.

"Given the expected decline in consumer confidence, we now believe the introduction of XP will not stimulate PC sales in the near term," McCarthy wrote. "XP does require significant memory and disk capacity to run effectively, and at least 70% of consumers would need to upgrade their systems to run XP. This decision, however, is easily deferred given current world events."

New front-door lock, anyone?