Leaving Las Vegas

And so, after walking many miles of carpeted floor, we arrive at L8019. This is the very last booth in the exhibit hall of the Las Vegas Convention Centre, the dead end of Comdex Fall 2001.

The space is empty.

It should have been occupied by Vertical Mouse, a startup from Pacifica, Calif. This was the best the company could get when it called to book space eight months ago — most companies do it a year in advance. But most companies would never have foreseen the sharp downturn the IT industry has taken, and surely none of them would have predicted a tragedy like Sept. 11 would take place just a few months before the show.

Vertical Mouse was one of the unexpected beneficiaries of the many exhibitors who decided to back out of the conference at the very last minute. Comdex organizer Key3Media was able to upgrade the company to a much more attractive spot further up the floor. It still wasn’t a large booth — we’re talking about a single cabinet with the products under glass and two chairs — but there was a much greater possibility that people would pass by.

Jack Lo couldn’t have been more pleased. The president of Vertical Mouse, he had been a patent attorney who spent about as much time as the average knowledge worker in front of a PC and, like many of us, felt those tell-tale arches and pains in his wrist when he went home. “I wasn’t having carpal tunnel (syndrome),” he said. “But it was uncomfortable, and I knew I would have liked something to take the discomfort away.”

Lo came up with an invention he hopes will turn the peripheral industry on its ear — or, more precisely, its wrist. He used clay to create a mold of a mouse that follows the natural position of a handshake. The Vertical Mouse puts the buttons on the side, and forces the side of the hand to take the pressure. Being a patent attorney, he quickly acquired all rights over his design and is planning to begin shipping in early 2002. He has already managed to sign several distributors over the last four days.

For people like Lo, Comdex continues to be the launching pad of a lifetime. He was busy talking with a reseller when I approached him, and, while I waited, a woman walked up to the booth and started using the mouse which had been connected to a notebook for demonstration purposes. “Omigod, this is greeaat,” she raved, moving it back and forth. “What a good idea!” She disappeared for a minute or two, then returned with a friend, whom she guided as he tested the product for himself. “See, see what I mean?” I was watching word of mouth in action — and watching Vertical Mouse get some return on investment for the money it had spent renting the booth.

Hopefully IBM managed to attract some new business partners at Comdex Fall 2001, and maybe Handspring sold some of the many Treos it had on display. But isn’t the idea of Lo, a man with an idea trying to slug it out with the big boys, exciting evidence of the long-term opportunity in this field? We cherish and celebrate the myth of the entrepreneur because it gives us hope, and often in the smaller booths Comdex gathered them in a unique, if temporary, community.

I came to Comdex Fall expecting the worst, but in many places I saw the best. The best minds debating complex issues. The best applications to work over the Internet. The best PC, server and cell phones vendors had to offer in terms of design, footprint and functionality. Indeed, it really was a community, and in spite of the security measures it felt good to be a part of it. Good show? Omigod, great show.

sschick@plesman.com

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