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

10/29/09Follow @wroush

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shook up the European telephony scene—still dominated at the time by government-run landline providers—through aggressive marketing to consumers and business users.

Orange’s startup culture probably first began to unravel in 2000, when France Telecom bought the company for some $40 billion. But the French giant soon sold much of its Orange stock in an IPO on the European markets, making it a stakeholder rather than sole owner. And the France Telecom acquisition didn’t stop Orange from buying Lexington, MA-based Wildfire Communications—a startup co-founded by Miner and Avid Technology founder Bill Warner—as part of a bold plan to soup up its services with new technologies.

Under Warner and Miner, Wildfire had built a voice-activated personal-assistant service that was an early precursor, in some ways, of today’s Google Voice. Orange kept Wildfire largely independent and began to roll out parts of its technology to consumers in Europe. But it soon reassigned Miner to head an “imagineering” group, which was formalized as Orange Labs in 2002. Around the same time, Miner was put in charge of a $225 million corporate venture fund called Orange Ventures, which ultimately invested in nearly a dozen companies, including Marlborough, MA-based data-warehousing leader Netezza (which went public in 2007) and Danger (which made the famous “Hiptop” phone and went on to be purchased by Microsoft in 2008).

The big idea in both of Miner’s efforts was to help Orange do more to harness innovation, both inside and outside the company. (Miner spoke with Xconomy about his time at Orange Labs, but declined to be quoted.) Orange Labs, like many corporate R&D labs, had both a blue-sky research wing, focused on areas like new voice recognition techniques and wireless networking protocols, and a more product-focused wing, charged with investigating applications that could be commercialized by Orange within a few years.

One person Miner hired to work on these shorter-term applications was Jason Karas, now the CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Carbonrally. “I was brought in to find ways to move the lab’s innovations to market,” says Karas, whose title was director of commercial development. “Orange wasn’t seen as a technology innovator as much as a marketing innovator at that time. They felt like they needed to get a better handle on emerging technologies to fortify their advantage.”

Building on the Wildfire technology, Karas helped Orange develop a voice-driven automated assistant intended to help customers navigate Orange’s services via the telephone. “You could say ‘Check my bill,’ ‘Give me a news headline,’ ‘Call John Smith,’ ‘Check my voicemail,’ and things like that,” says Karas.

But even more important, Karas helped to create a rapid development program called Orange First, which set itself the goal of readying six new mobile services for market trials in Europe every year. “We were really trying to drive more of a beta-test mentality for the carrier,” Karas says. “You don’t always need to go through 18 months of development; you can do a quick test on a hundred or a thousand customers and really learn a lot by getting basic feedback.”

The labs used the Orange First process to bring several new voicemail-related services to market in France, and later experimented with some of the first mobile widgets, small software programs for tasks like getting weather forecasts. “This was two years prior to the iPhone, so it was really prescient work we were doing,” Karas says.

But Karas says his commercialization work was fraught from the beginning with issues of both geographical and cultural separation. “Of course, it’s always very difficult to … Next Page »

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

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  • Surj

    It’s a shame. I worked there and Ilya was right. The cultural (French, UK,US) differences killed any reasonable chance of ideas working. Sad part is that we prototyped services similar to twitter in 2003 and ideas that we see others succeeding with now. Truly brilliant crew there. It’s rather like Orange created their Xerox PARC story. Amazing. ( Xerox PARC created many of the things we see now in computing – ethernet, the PC, the Laser printer, the Desktop Interface – they made zero dollars from it, as talent just walked out the door frustrated)

  • Dave

    If you tell how Wildfire began, you should also tell how it ended.

    From 2000 to 2002, Orange invested heavily in Wildfire. Dozens of new people were hired at generous salaries, and the company moved from one cramped floor into a spacious, custom-renovated three-story building.

    In May 2003, Orange closed this office, effectively ending Wildfire development. A few employees followed Rich Miner to Cambridge, and the rest (about 140) were let go.

    Did the people interviewed for the article give any reasons for this reversal?

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