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France Telecom Shutting Down R&D Lab in Cambridge

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 14, 2009 09:17 AM

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Back in post-bubble 2002, France Telecom opened a swanky new research lab in Cambridge for its Orange wireless service. Orange Labs intended to look at how the mobile web, speech recognition, and data services would change the way we use mobile phones -- and also explore the potential for other connected devices like intelligent alarm clocks or tables. The lab was headed by Rich Miner, who later went on to help develop the Android mobile operating system for Google, and now runs Google Ventures from Cambridge. Orange Labs was a haven for many ex-MIT Media Lab folks, and lots of smart techies who'd been rendered jobless by the dot-com bust. (Here's a 2002 Globe piece that talks about the lab.)

Seven years later, France Telecom is shutting down the Cambridge facility, which employs 52 people and is supervised by CEO Frank Bowman. The lab's last day is October 30th.

Why? Those two loathesome words: cost-cutting and restructuring.

"We've got another Orange Lab in Silicon Valley, and the mission of this lab in Boston was quite similar to labs we operate in Japan and in France," France Telecom spokesman Bertrand Deronchaine told me this morning. Asked about the lab's most useful contributions to Orange and France Telecom, Deronchaine said they related to "services like speech recognition, interface design, and microblogging," as well as serving as France Telecom's liaison to the Cambridge-based World Wide Web Consortium, which is developing standards for the mobile web. Orange Labs also tested various new mobile services for the U.S. and other markets, Deronchaine said. FT still hasn't made an official announcement about the closure.

Former researchers at the lab have told me for years that one of the challenges at the lab was to get their projects turned into actual products and services by Orange and France Telecom. Harvard Business School even published a case study on the issue. "[Miner] has resources that he never imagined, but getting Orange's attention is very hard to do," HBS prof Joe Lassiter wrote.

"It is very sad to think about what it could have been," former Orange employee Steve Strassman writes via e-mail. "It truly could have been a great lab."

The lab once employed close to 100 people. It wound up in Boston after Orange acquired Wildfire Communications, a start-up that created an intelligent personal phone assistant that handled incoming phone calls and took messages. Wildfire was founded by Miner and Bill Warner, and was acquired by Orange in 2000 for $140 million.

Flickr offers these photos of the exquisitely-designed Orange Labs facility.

Post a note, if you would, if you're a current or former Orange Labs employee: what do you view as the lab's most important contributions? What were the coolest projects there?

And if you know about local companies who are looking for mobile developers and wireless expertise, post a note...

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7 comments so far...
  1. We were looking forward to exploring ways to make cellphone-based technology workable for third-world users, including some who are illiterate. Voice-based microblogging is one example. Orange and France Telecom have a presence in many of these countries with tremendous growth potential if the technology meets people where they are. Too bad France Telecom didn't see our value as a long-term investment.
    -Paul Sawyer
    Voice UI interaction designer

    Posted by Paul Sawyer August 14, 09 02:45 PM
  1. I am sad, but not surprised to see it go. It's bad news for the people involved and the NE technology scene - but then again, a telco running R&D these days is almost guaranteed to fail, isn't it? Industry structure and innovation landscape has changed so much over the last couple of years that service providers are finding it tough even to stay on top of their core business - providing a solid service experience.

    Posted by Rajeev August 14, 09 07:38 PM
  1. must be the business friendly welcome mat, this state lays out....tax ,tax and more taxes.....

    Posted by mazda83 August 14, 09 10:30 PM
  1. This is a superb piece of reporting. Concise and lays out what's at stake in a clear compelling way. I'd like to see Kirsner do more investigative reporting - less VC-massaging.

    Posted by Jen August 15, 09 02:55 AM
  1. Thanks for the feedback, Jen. VC massaging is physically exhausting work, but the tips aren't bad.

    Posted by Scott Kirsner August 15, 09 10:02 AM
  1. Interesting story.

    I suspect that cost-cutting and restructuring could be just a ruse. FT stock seems to be doing pretty well, it is paying dividends at around 8% with good cash flow, and margins in the telco space are still pretty high. France Telecom still operates a large network of international labs. Was this the only lab cut? I don't know. Were any labs inside France itself affected? Somehow I doubt this. Look at how France Telecom treated its Orange acquisition in the UK.

    Two labs in the US for a French company does seem a bit excessive, especially when you have the entire working population of France itching for retribution at Anglo-American economic excess. And let's be honest, SF would make a nice place to wine & dine visitors. Boston seems a little too staid in comparison, for your average French executive probably a little too much like those little depressing low-budget British provincial cities which is best just avoided.

    Was it ineptitude? From comments in a Linked-In discussion group, I understand that the Boston Lab had recently cut sponsorships of local universities like the MIT Media Lab, which seems in retrospect a particularly bone-headed thing to do if the purpose of putting the lab in Boston in the first place was to interact closely with local academic institutions. Without taking advantage of the Boston academia, it loses a lot of distinctive advantage, and would make it much harder to defend from cutbacks.

    Was it internal politics? I also see the CEO and Chairman of France Telecom wrote a book called "The Second Life of Networks", co-written by one Georges Nahon and Gabriel Sidhom, both of whom are both at the San Francisco Lab. Connected much?

    So reading this and the comments on Linked In, my suspicion is that the backstory is more complex. Economic conditions like these are often just a convenient opportunity for power plays within this kind of massive organization. Cost-cutting sounds like only a proximate cause.

    Posted by Donald King August 15, 09 07:06 PM
  1. Best office space in Cambridge! Spent some time there and was always impressed with the layout, design and "zen" of it all....

    Posted by Max August 27, 09 09:49 AM
 

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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