A pivotal moment in the Microsoft Corp. antitrust trial could be at hand. U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who is hearing the case, has said he will issue what's called a "Findings of Fact" on a Friday, perhaps as early as today.

Here's a primer on this document and the case.

Q: Okay, what is this fight about again?

A: The Justice Department has accused Microsoft of illegally exploiting its market dominance to crush potential threats to its Windows operating system for personal computers. To win, the government must convince Jackson that the company has a monopoly with Windows and that it has used that power illegally.

To argue the latter, Justice lawyers have accused Microsoft of a variety of bad acts. Most notably, the company is alleged to have illegally bundled its Internet Explorer browser with Windows in order to squelch the rival Netscape browser.

In addition, the government maintains that Microsoft bludgeoned computer makers into favoring Internet Explorer, tried to sabotage Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java programming language and attempted to strong-arm Apple Computer Inc. into dropping a popular video-streaming product.

Microsoft has acknowledged that it has used hard-nosed business tactics, but it contends that its behavior has not violated antitrust laws.

Q: So what is this "Findings of Fact"?

A: Essentially, this is everyone's first glimpse into Jackson's thinking. He will offer what amounts to his own version of the events in dispute, a narrative that will shed light on which witnesses he finds credible and whether he considers the case presented by Microsoft or the government more compelling.

But Jackson will stop short of drawing conclusions. In other words, don't expect him to conclude that Microsoft violated the Sherman Antitrust Act or engaged in predatory pricing, or even that it did nothing illegal. He'll merely lay out the dots without actually connecting them.

Q: When does he weigh in with a conclusion?

A: In a few months, most likely. If there's no out-of-court settlement--something that Jackson is likely to encourage--each side will be invited to propose ideas about how to apply the law to the facts as the judge views them. As part of that process, Jackson could allow each side to present witnesses to buttress its opinions. The judge is likely to issue a "Conclusions of Law" sometime in January.

Q: Will this case be over then?

A: Hardly. Jackson will take a couple of months to determine what, if any, remedies are needed in the case. After that, the losing side is likely to appeal the matter, either directly to the Supreme Court or to a federal appeals panel. Depending on which court takes the case, a true end to this war might not occur until 2002.