The Justice Department yesterday took aim at Microsoft, with a turgid 70-page brief outlining four points of antitrust-law violation.

The strongest charge was that the company took anti-competitive steps to maintain its monopoly.

In mid-January, Microsoft's job will be to persuade the judge that it didn't break any laws at all.

One thing that could influence the eventual outcome, say US legal experts is that, to classify Explorer's freebie status as predatory pricing, the government's lawyers argued that giving away the browser achieved its anti-competitive effect by perpetuating yet another monopoly: Windows.

The government will be hard pressed to prove its charge, University of Baltimore School of Law antitrust professor Bob Lande said. He believes that the tying argument is tricky because Jackson - in a previous trial - issued a preliminary injunction forcing Microsoft to separate the browser from the operating system.

Legal experts also claim that the sassy tone of the government's conclusions could greatly affect settlement talks, according to Wilcox. If Microsoft detects the government has overplayed its hand, the company could either take an aggressive posture during negotiations or bag the talks entirely in favour of an appeals strategy.