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

10/29/09Follow @wroush

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perhaps more analytical—they really like to understand where things are going in an elegant and exhaustive way. But we were coming from an organization where we had more of a beta-test mentality.”

[The following three paragraphs have been corrected and updated with additional information from sources.] Also in 2003, Orange hired a new CEO, former US West chief executive Sol Trujillo, who brought with him a number of former US West subordinates, including Frank Bowman. In 2004, Bowman was assigned to run Orange Labs. That bought the lab a temporary new lease on life.

“The group kind of had a reboot when Frank came on board, which was just after I left,” Rybchin says. “Putting this guy who was a friend of Sol’s in charge of this signaled something—doors were instantly opened to Frank that Rich had had to try to beat down. We had laid the foundation and built the network, and Frank kind of took it home with his gravitas and his personal contact with the senior leadership.” Bowman had good relationships with executives in France, even after Trujillo left Orange in 2004, which helped the lab get few more of its ideas to the product stage.

But the organization Miner had built still had an uncertain role inside France Telecom. In 2004, the company shut down Orange Ventures and transferred management of its investments to Innovacom, its existing venture capital subsidiary. In the spring of 2005, Miner left Orange to join Andy Rubin, the founder of Danger, who was working on new phone operating system at Android.

After that time, the lab became more and more marginalized inside Orange, according to Karas, who left in 2007 to pursue his interest in energy and environmental issues by starting Cambridge-based Carbonrally, a site where members compete to reduce their carbon footprints. Meanwhile, Orange’s sister lab on the West Coast only seems to have strengthened its ties with the mother ship: the co-author of France Telecom CEO Didier Lombard’s 2008 book, The Second Life of Networks, is none other than Georges Nahon, the CEO of Orange Labs San Francisco.

Despite the frustrations, though, Karas credits Orange Labs with teaching him a lot about product development. “I wouldn’t have been able to do Carbonrally in 2002 [before joining Orange]—I wouldn’t have had the confidence,” he says. But having watched a lot of products developed quickly—even though some never made it to market—prepared him for the challenges of running a Web 2.0-style startup. “We’re using the same beta-test mentality, and working in that agile way and building on feedback and getting to market as quickly as possible.”

But at this point, almost eight years after Orange Lab’s founding and six years after Miner’s depature, closing the lab down and letting its employees move on may actually be the decent thing to do, Karas says. “It was getting more and more difficult for that lab to have an impact, and that just gets frustrating for people who are really inspired and motivated,” he says. “In some ways it’s a suitable time for France Telecom to scale it down and for those folks to apply some of their wonderful energy somewhere else.”

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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