MS, DOJ brace for Friday decision

Will he or won't he -- only Judge Jackson knows for sure. But a decision in the landmark Microsoft antitrust trial may be only hours away

With the approach of another Friday, all eyes are again on Washington, D.C., where the presiding judge in the Microsoft antitrust case may issue his ruling in the so-called finding of fact stage of the historic trial.

The judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson, who last month said he would release his ruling on a Friday, declined to pinpoint a specific date.

That ambiguous declaration has since set in motion a weekly guessing game of will he or won't he. If a decision is en route, the court will tip its intentions by 3:30 PM Eastern time.

In the meantime, the protagonists in this marathon struggle continue to project supreme confidence about the projected outcome. At least they do in public. In private, however, the rivals have been more circumspect about the prospects of achieving a crushing victory.

"The expectation is that it will be a mixed bag," said a source on the Microsoft defence team.

In an earlier interview with ZDNet News, former government prosecutor Stephen Houck -- who has since resigned from the case -- offered a similar assessment. "It's a complicated case and I'd be surprised if the judge ruled 100 percent our way," he said at the time.

The government sued Microsoft in May 1998, charging the software maker with abusing its monopoly in operating systems in a bid to control the market for Web browsers. Microsoft has steadfastly rejected the charges.

Although equity markets may react in a volatile fashion to Jackson's ruling, the finding of fact does not indicate guilt or innocence. Rather, Jackson is simply synthesising the competing narratives and determining the facts over the 76 days of testimony.

That has been a prodigious task. During the course of the trial, thousands of pages of testimony were submitted as evidence, not to mention hundreds of hours of conflicting court testimony. The finding of fact is expected to foreshadow the next stage, in which Jackson will determine how to apply the law and whether to apply remedies.

But several legal experts have suggested that the judge may not render his conclusive opinion until the two sides once more try to reach an out-of-court settlement. That process could be moved along if the judge determines Microsoft is a monopoly and that it sought to use that monopoly to crush competition. Throughout the trial, Microsoft and Chairman Bill Gates countered that both charges were false and that it was a vigorous competitor faced with keen technological and business challenges.

Whatever the outcome, the trial will be remembered as a struggle between the most powerful country in history and the richest man in the world.

Take me to the DoJ/Microsoft special .