Employment experts are predicting that turmoil from the high-profile antitrust case may give competitors an opening to steal Microsoft’s top-notch software engineers and other employees.

"With the government's recent intervention, Microsoft's ... stakehold on the best software engineers may have evaporated," said Jeffrey Christian, chairman and CEO of search firm Christian & Timbers in Cleveland.

Microsoft executives — as usual after a big court ruling — have held a companywide meeting to explain the situation to 37,000 employees and express Microsoft's optimism about its future.

But published reports in the Washington Post and elsewhere indicated that the pep rally drew cynical muttering and pointed questions from some Microsoft employees who are starting worry about their future there.

Recruitment could suffer, too. "Who will want to sign on with a company with a publicly discussed uncertain future — while the appeal process drags on and on?" asked John A. Challenger, CEO at Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. in Chicago. "Microsoft recruiters from now on will operate at a huge disadvantage," he said.

Challenger said Microsoft's human resources department will have trouble retaining the workforce, "no matter how loyal they have been in the past." Why? "Recruiters will plant and replant uncertainty in the minds of the Microsoft workers whom competitors desire the most," he said.

At the companywide meeting and in press conferences, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has urged employees to keep their focus on producing great software and has emphasised his view that eventually the company will be vindicated.