WASHINGTON -- The buzz picked up as the man with the Cheshire grin slipped into the front row with the rest of the Microsoft brain trust.
A nattily dressed Brad Chase, arriving in town fresh from his big Windows 2000 announcement, surprised everyone when he dropped by Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's courtroom to take a gander at the circus.
His cameo appearance didn't go unnoticed by the press gallery. Neither was it overlooked by lead government lawyer David Boies -- he misses nothing -- and whose wan expression spoke volumes.
Don't be in such a rush, Mr. Witness-in-Waiting, it said. Your time will come.
So it will, but more about that later.
Whatever Chase was doing in court, he wasn't letting on. What are you doing here, he was asked.
"Just looking," he answered, the picture of innocence.
Getting ready for the big event? Chase just smiled that smile ... and changed the conversation.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the significance of the upcoming Bill Gates video. (It's been promised and put off four times now.)
Gates video: Great entertainment?
But the outcome of this trial won't hinge on Chairman Bill. Instead, it'll turn on the performance of Chase and the other upper-level Microsoft managers who will testify.
Sure, the Gates appearance will make for great entertainment. On the trial's first day, Boies gave everyone a taste, running a snippet of the Gates tapes, and now the crowd's stomping for more.
The VHS-version of Gates -- he's not scheduled to appear in person -- should present an easy target for a skilled litigator such as Boies.
His aim will be to contradict Gates' taped testimony with the CEO's own memos -- the objective being to paint Gates as a ruthless mogul who stops at nothing to crush his competitors.
But even then, it's unclear how much of a lift that would provide the government's case.
After all, Gates' "Road Ahead" has become pocked with potholes these past two years. How many folks still believe the gushy panegyrics about Mr. Bill that have so often graced the covers of Fortune magazine?
No walk in the park
The more interesting question is whether Boies can keep the government's case intact after interrogating the likes of Chase, Paul Maritz, Joachim Kempin and the rest of the Microsofties.
It won't be a cakewalk.
Just ask John Warden, Microsoft's lead defense attorney. After butting heads with his first two witnesses, Warden has scored some points -- but not many.
And despite the it's-been-a-good-day-for-Microsoft spin the company's spokesmen have sought to put on the trial's first two weeks, Warden has come out with the short end of the stick.
What makes the Chases of Microsoft such challenging witnesses is that they're the ones who negotiate the contracts. They know where all the skeletons are buried. This is where things could get really interesting.
Taking no prisoners
Just like their chairman, all these Bills-in-training are fiercely bright. And like their fearless leader, they also give no quarter. Just try debating the merits of a competitor's product compared to a competing one from Microsoft, for instance.
In all my years covering the computer industry, I never recall hearing a Microsoft executive concede second place -- let alone a goof. (For the record, they even kept a straight face long after the company's ill-fated "Microsoft Bob" home software line hit the market!)
That never-take-no-for-an-answer doggedness has undeniably worked in Microsoft's favor in business. And in this regard, what works in business may also work in the courtroom.
So a word to chief prosecutor Boies: Beware.