Microsoft Case: Get Set for a Roller-Coaster Ride

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Hang on to your portfolios, folks. The breakdown Saturday of antitrust negotiations between federal officials and Microsoft turned Monday into a rough day for MSFT. The stock has been swinging wildly over the past few weeks, rising on rumors of a settlement, diving when talks appeared stalled. And now those talks are dead. What went wrong? It's hard to tell. Some accounts say that Microsoft balked at the DOJ's demand that it unbundle Internet Explorer from Windows, while other sources insist that Gates & Co. were perfectly willing to do so. And quite a few fingers (especially ones based in Redmond) are pointing at the attorneys general of the 19 states riding shotgun on the federal antitrust suit, charging that they were making more demands than the DOJ wanted, or that Microsoft was willing to accept.

In any case, this leaves the decision back where it started: in the hands of Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson. On Monday, Judge Jackson announced that he would deliver his verdict at 5 p.m. the same day (after the close of the stock markets). Having already delivered his "finding of fact" — that Microsoft is indeed a monopoly — the judge is expected to find that Microsoft used that monopoly in violation of antitrust law. That will be followed by the the final phase of the landmark antitrust trial, expected to last several months, in which Jackson will determine a remedy that could range from a fine against the software giant to a breakup of the company. That's bad news for the boys from Washington State, since any decision Jackson makes could serve as potentially damaging precedent in the 115 civil suits the company is currently facing. Still, Microsoft will almost certainly appeal Jackson's decision, a process that should reach the Supreme Court right about the time that Windows 2002 is ready to launch. Plenty of time for a few more stock swings before then.