R.I.P. Orange Labs Cambridge (2002-2009): A Story of Opportunities Missed

[Corrected and updated, 10/28/09, 12:40 p.m.; see page 4.] Back in 2002, it must have sounded like a good idea for Orange, a fast-growing European wireless provider known more for the simplicity of its services than for their sophistication, to open an R&D center in Boston, where it could hire a troop of brainy engineers, consultants, and startup entrepreneurs to come up with ideas for new high-tech services that would continue to fuel its growth.

In practice, though, an array of barriers meant that Orange Labs—which settled near MIT in Cambridge, MA, and became home to what one former employee calls “the most talented, most passionate group of people I’ve ever worked with”—never really fulfilled its potential. Eventually, it lost the pull it needed within Orange and its parent company, France Telecom, to keep growing. And after a seven-year run, the lab will close its doors tomorrow.

France Telecom’s decision to shutter Orange Labs Cambridge is ostensibly part of a corporate consolidation effort—there’s another Orange laboratory in South San Francisco, and in tough economic times it’s hard to argue that any European company needs two U.S. research centers.

But several former Orange Labs members tell Xconomy that the Cambridge facility’s demise was so long in the making that it could perhaps have been predicted from the start. It was rooted, these sources say, both in cultural differences between the lab’s American engineers and their British and French overseers, and in textbook organizational frictions and rivalries that prevented most Orange Labs initiatives from maturing into products that could be deployed to actual Orange customers. Just as important, the former employees say, Orange’s San Francisco lab developed far stronger political connections to the France Telecom leadership, making it obvious which of the two labs was more likely to survive any cost-cutting round.

Orange Labs' facility on Second Street in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA

Orange Labs' facility on Second Street in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA

But while Orange Labs Cambridge may not have fulfilled its creators’ hopes, it will leave a lasting footprint on the Boston technology scene. Developers at the lab prototyped services such as push-to-talk, mobile photo sharing, localized search, and app-like “widgets” long before any of these technologies became standard on mobile phones. The lab provided a home, at its height, to about 60 brilliant hardware and software engineers, including many graduates of MIT and other local universities. And it acted as a springboard for entrepreneurs who have gone on to play other important roles in the mobile industry—the most prominent being Orange Labs’ founder and first director, Rich Miner, who later co-founded mobile software startup Android, helped transform the Android operating system into an industry standard before and after the company was acquired by Google, and now runs Google Ventures.

Still, there’s a sense that the lab could have accomplished much more. “If I were to summarize the ultimate legacy that the lab had for Orange and France Telecom, I would say ‘missed opportunity,'” says Iliya Rybchin, who was a program manager at Orange Lab from 2002 to 2004 and is now overseeing digital development projects at publisher McGraw-Hill. “The fact that [France Telecom] wasn’t willing or capable of tapping into that talent pool, with that amazing level of innovation and insight and passion, is frankly unfortunate, because the kinds of things that we were producing in the lab really had the potential to be transformative in the industry.”

Officials at France Telecom have not responded to Xconomy’s requests for comment on the shutdown, nor has Orange Labs CEO Frank Bowman.

The story of Orange Labs starts with Orange itself, formed in 1994 by a consortium of British and French companies. Industry insiders describe the early Orange as a scrappy, innovation-focused, startup-style company that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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