It's a Brave Man Who Would Bet on Microsoft

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Microsoft is still in there punching, but its battle royal with the Justice Department was over a long time ago. "Nobody on Planet Earth believes that Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson isnít going to rule against Redmond on this one," says TIME technology writer Chris Taylor as the Microsoft antitrust trial limped into its penultimate round on Tuesday with the start of final oral arguments. "About all they can do now is keep pressing their case and try to mitigate what will certainly be an unfavorable outcome." Both sides wrapped up with a quick recap of what the trial-watching world has heard oh-so-many times before. The government says Microsoft is a monopoly; Microsoft says it ainít and in fact is under constant siege from an ever-evolving industry that has been out to topple it long before the feds ever got the idea. Taylor isnít buying the Bill Gates line ó continually and spectacularly refuted by the emperorís own private comments ó and heís certain Jackson wonít either.

"What can you really point to in terms of new competition?" Taylor says. "Their only rival in the PC operating-system market is Linux, and while itís promising, itís still beyond the reach of the common man. Thereís been no fundamental shift that would make the government reconsider its case." So what do we have to look forward to after Tuesday? Another long hiatus ó in which Microsoft and the government are meant to think about settling but probably wonít ó after which the two sides will present their visions of the companyís penance (could another billion-or-so charitable contribution be on the way?). Thatís where itíll get interesting; expect the feds and the states to call for an AT&T-style bustup of the Gates juggernaut, which despite its complaints hasnít shown much wear and tear after a year-plus of this trial. And the boys from Redmond? "I wouldnít expect them to be too hard on themselves," Taylor jokes. "Theyíll probably just start looking ahead to the appeal." The world's worthy charities are already salivating at the prospect.