At least two PC vendors have already started shipping computer systems installed with Windows 2000, weeks before Microsoft's new operating system is due to be officially launched. Gateway 2000 and Compaq confirmed yesterday that they have started shipping servers, desktops and notebooks installed with the new OS. Compaq shipped its first Windows 2000 systems Saturday to a customer in New Zealand, a spokesman for the company said. Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, plans to roll out new services today aimed at helping companies migrate to the new operating system, as well as unveil a worldwide Windows 2000 education program, a spokesman for the company said. While HP is taking orders now for select Windows 2000 systems, the company won't actually ship products until next month, the spokesman said. Microsoft's decision to allow PC makers to ship Windows 2000 systems ahead of the planned February 17 official launch date stems in part from the software giant's desire to see sales of the much-delayed operating system ramp up quickly, according to a source at one PC maker who asked not to be identified. "(Microsoft's) biggest priority right now is to get as much market penetration as possible as early as possible," the source said. Another reason may be that system manufacturers have grown tired of waiting for the new operating system, which has been delayed a few times, and have decided to go ahead and ship Windows 2000 systems now, suggested Chris Le Tocq, research director with Gartner Group, based in San Jose, California. The early availability hasn’t been accompanied by the fanfare that typically heralds the release of a new operating system. One industry source said Microsoft has encouraged its manufacturing partners not to hype the availability of systems running its new OS, so as not to detract attention from a launch party planned for February 17 in San Francisco, where Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is scheduled to speak. A spokeswoman for Microsoft said that while select Windows 2000 systems may be available now, "the masses will not be ready until February17". Not all of Microsoft's manufacturing partners are offering Windows 2000 systems today. Like HP, Dell has started taking orders for Windows 2000 systems but won't actually ship them before the start of next month, a Dell spokesman said. IBM could not be reached for comment at press time.