Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

In Memoriam René Sommer

René Sommer is no longer. I got the message rather late, a few days ago I was exchanging some email with an associate at Logitech, and asked him to pass my regards to René, and to my surprise the answer came back that our friend had passed away.

René had died last year, October the 5th of 2009, way too young at 58. We were never close friends, but we did meet on several occasions and it made me appreciate him very much, read on to see why.

For those of you who have no idea who this is, René was the man that helped bring the mouse to market from a technical point of view, the archetype start-up founder techie, one of the main people at Logitech, the worlds largest manufacturer of computer mice.

More an engineer and a programmer than a business guy he was quietly working in the background of that vast corporation. The mouse was originally invented by Douglas Engelbart, René improved it substantially, eventually adding a small microprocessor to the mouse, making it a stand-alone peripheral that required much less attention from the computer it was connected to. This paved the way for mass market adoption. Chances are pretty good you have at least one mouse in your house whose firmware and electronics design can be traced back to René’s original work, possibly you have one sitting under the palm of your hand right now.

Douglas Engelbart and René Sommer remained good friends, and in recognition of Engelbarts contribution to the success of Logitech, Bootstrap, Engelbarts’ company found a home at Logitech headquarters in the United States, free of charge.

To show you a little bit of how special a person René really was I would like to tell you a small story about him.

In 1999, about a year after we launched ‘camarades.com’, the worlds first webcam community, Logitech backed a competitor to our site called spotlife.com. Together with Philips they put up a very large amount of capital in order to create a webcam community site at an unprecedented scale.

As they were about to go to market, they noticed our small upstart company used an image of a webcam as the logo and their legal department sent us a ‘cease-and-desist’.

I responded rather testily because we’d been approached by someone from spotlife days earlier about venues for cooperation. I figured this was a play of sorts to soften us up and told them all collaboration talks would be on hold until they called of the dogs.

Which they did, and very promptly so. A delegation of spotlife people came to the Netherlands and we hashed over the possibility of a take over. This went remarkably well, until my meeting with Spotlifes first CEO, whose name I’ll keep out of this, but who made me decide our interests were probably not aligned.

I talked to the people at Logitech and some other senior people at spotlife to explain why we would not proceed and we parted ways, or so I thought.

Three weeks later I got a call from a secretary from the logitech headquarters in Switzerland if I would mind if some of their people would visit. Two senior executives, Bernard Gander and René Sommer showed up and wanted to know what we were up to, besides camarades.com.

We had a great afternoon, showing them all the little projects we had built over time, one of them, a server farm based speech recognition system really drew their attention and they asked if I would like to come to Switzerland to present it, which I eventually ended up doing.

The really surprising part of that visit to our offices though, was that somewhere in the afternoon my then 5 year old son walked in to the office to say hi to daddy. René started talking to the boy, showing off his 0 series mobile phone with camera (the first time I saw a phone with a built in camera) and was surprised that he spoke English so well for such a young dutch kid, and they took off to his room so he could show René his toys in turn.

About an hour and a half later Bernard and I wondered what was going on and we went there to look.

René and my son, sitting on the ground under the bed at a little built in desk were having the time of their life playing there, both laughing like maniacs at some private joke.

My son had a little computer of his own to play around with (mostly simple games), and of course it had a mouse. But his hands were really small, and he had a fairly hard time using it.

Several weeks after the visit a package arrived, couriered from Switzerland, a mouse suitable for a small childs hand, with a hand written note about what a great time he’d had, compliments of René, for his little friend.

To me that was quite an amazing experience, and it spoke volumes about the kind of person René was. Since then we would occasionally exchange emails, just to stay in touch.

I really dread having to tell my son, who still remembers ‘the nice man from Switzerland’ that he played with, and the special gift.

René_Sommer page at wikipedia.