France Telecom Shutting Down R&D Lab in Cambridge

Posted by skirsner August 14, 2009 09:17 AM

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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