Thierry Bonhomme: a very Darwinian way of working at
There was a moment when Thierry Bonhomme appeared to be saying
that one of the most important factors in telecoms innovation
was the law of love.
But that was a stupid misunderstanding by Global Telecoms
Business. It's not the loi d'amour that he was talking about,
but the loi de Moore — more familiar in English as
Moore's law — that Bonhomme, senior vice president for
research and innovation at France Telecom, and his colleagues
have to take into account.
Moore's law, as defined by Intel founder Gordon Moore many
decades ago, says that every 18 months the price of silicon
circuitry halves and the power doubles. "We have exactly the
same law in our industry," says Bonhomme. The result is the
commoditisation of telecoms.
At the same time there's globalisation — not just of
the vendors, from handset makers to equipment makers, but also
of the operators.
Orange, France Telecom's worldwide brand, is testament to that:
the brand was invented in the UK in the mid-1990s, became part
of France Telecom in 2000, and is now used by its businesses in
France and throughout the world.
A bigger playground
"Our playground is becoming wider and wider, because of IP
and the impact of technology, which brings true convergence,"
says Bonhomme. "Globalisation and commoditisation are factors
It's a tough world, he's ready to admit. "The playground is
wider and wider as we looking for ways to add value to the
customer," he says. "We consider the customer at the centre of
the organisation including innovation in general and R&D.
That is the main lever — it comes from globalisation
It is the same for the other competitors in the business, other
operators and, for example, handset makers such as Nokia which
are trying to sell services on top of their phones to
operators' subscribers. Bonhomme shrugs at this competition:
"We are adults and we are components of this Darwinian
Bonhomme, who was appointed to his role in charge of R&D at
the end of 2006, is based at the main Orange Labs in the south
of Paris — the headquarters of all the Orange Labs
owned by France Telecom around the world.
Bonhomme reports to Georges Penalver, the group's head of
strategic marketing — a revealing reporting line. Time
was when heads of R&D ran their own labs and told the
marketing guys what was coming off the benches and going into
He has been with France Telecom for most of his career since
1981, except for a short spell running Idate, the research
institute based in the south of France at Montpelier. On his
return he ran the company's operations in Grenoble and then
Marseille before heading distribution to business
So he's not a detached scientist or engineer. And his lab is
very different in style from BT's research and innovation
headquarters at Adastral Park, which is close to Ipswich an
hour or so from London in the east of England. Orange Labs is
in suburban Paris, at Issy-Les-Moulineaux, at the southern end
of metro line 12.
And Orange Labs is very clearly part of Orange: it is a
corporate building, with the familiar bright square logo above
the main door, leading to a reception that guards a maze of
staircases and offices. Adastral, by contrast, is a sprawling
campus of buildings, built on an old airfield, housing not only
BT but several spin-off companies.
The international growth of France Telecom since 2000 is
reflected in the growth in the network of labs beyond the Paris
"This has all impacted the organisation of innovation," says
Bonhomme. Initially all the company's researchers were French,
"which is no longer the case today" when "we have 1,000 people
outside of France".
There are US labs at the twin centres of the North American
high technology industry, "in San Francisco because of Silicon
Valley and the social networking activities", and where Orange
can be part of the ecosystem of "innovative companies,
universities and the big, big companies", he says.
In Boston, Orange Labs is in the middle of what Bonhomme calls
"Bell Labs history" as well as MIT and the East Coast
advertising community. "IMS and Web 2.0 are two main topics we
are working on. This is probably the best location to
In Asia Orange has labs in Seoul and Tokyo, where staff work on
the future of 2D and 3D screens, and on multimedia and
"In China, we have our largest lab outside France with more
than 130 fulltime employees in Beijing," says Bonhomme. They
are in close touch with "all the Chinese activities", he says,
including manufacturers and operators.
"The future of standards will be strongly influenced by Chinese
entities — operators or vendors. That's the future of
the market. You can't consider that you can play without
It's a revealing observation — echoing something said
earlier by Mike Short, R&D head of Telefónica O2
Europe during a Global Telecoms Business roundtable held at
Mobile World Congress in February 2008. "China is the largest
mobile market in the world by customer numbers. We need to know
what the China roadmap is," said Short at the time.
And so France Telecom, for similar reasons, decides it's worth
having 130 staff in Beijing.
There are smaller labs in Spain, the UK and Poland —
"with a very deep interaction in the markets where they are
located", says Bonhomme. "They are there to support and enhance
the delivery of innovation and bring local innovations to us at
a corporate level which we could then distribute to other
Customer centric innovation
Innovation has to be customer centric, he adds, and that's
why Orange has recently set up new labs to serve the Africa and
Middle East markets — in Cairo and Amman. "You have to
be embedded in the ecosystem, in the region," he says.
"Innovation, if it's customer centric, can't just be done from
the Western countries."
Is this consistent with globalisation? Yes, says Bonhomme. "The
first answer to globalisation is to have direct contact with
the different key ecosystems around the globe and to share
information around the group, and use it to build —
through functionalities, through new business models —
all those different things around the globe."
At the same time Bonhomme is aware of a considerable change of
pace in the demand for innovation. "The ability to deliver, to
provide a service faster than the others is something that is
key today," he says, "absolutely key."
Unfortunately it's impossible now to forecast how fast
innovations are needed. "Ten years ago, or 15 years ago, our
turnover was mainly through fixed activity."
Then the focus was on mobile, and then internet and data
services. "We consider now it is impossible to manage this
cycle because the playing field is wider than expected," says
He is looking at "the convergence of the three screens, mobile,
TV and PC", and is also fascinated by the French term
"être machinique". There is no direct expression in
English, but think of the 1980s term "informatique", which the
Anglo-Saxons as the more laborious "information technology".
Essentially "machinique" refers to the future of communications
Back from the future to the present. There is no longer a
technology threshold, warns Bonhomme. "The new guy with money
can buy the techno and apply the techno and his business model
and it can be very disruptive for our business," he warns. Look
at YouTube and Facebook — only a few years old and
already having a dominant effect on the need for internet
So there are small moves and large within France Telecom. The
company is producing its own movies — under the brand
Studio 37 — and it, like several other incumbents, are
competing in the market for football and other sports
For Bonhomme and Orange Labs he sees a future in what he
calls "open innovation": a triple combination of marketing
— note his reporting line again — with
R&D and thirdly IT and network technology.
"It's not an organisation," he says: "It's an entity
responsible for the management of the roadmaps of the products
that are to generate growth in the future."
Funding for innovation has increased from 1.7% of corporate
turnover to 2% in 2008, a number that excludes IT developments
— a category, Bonhomme is careful to point out, that
some operators include in their innovation heading.
So what does open innovation mean? Lots of opportunities for
working with other innovative companies to develop new ideas,
he says. For example, Orange runs a series of "bar camps", a
term defined by Wikipedia as "an international network of user
generated conferences — open, participatory
workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants
— often focusing on early-stage web applications and
related open source technologies, social protocols and open
For Orange these have turned into "a permanent working place",
says Bonhomme: "workshops with small innovative companies",
where people work on ideas for new services.
Some of these projects are put in front of what seem to be
technology-oriented focus groups, involving marketers and
engineers as well as potential users. These can be "very
disruptive ideas not yet seen by the clients", says Bonhomme:
"Interesting but difficult to work on."
More recently France Telecom has started Orange Vallée
— and the echo of Silicon Valley is entirely
deliberate — as "a small team to speed up services
which don't need the support of IT or the network —
speed up very good ideas we have", he says.
These could include services he categorises as "Web 2.0 or Web
3.0" as well as "mash-ups of APIs from our company or outside
The idea is to work with clients on a real basis to create
better products. "It's a very Darwinian way of working," he
says: "We start with 100 ideas. At end of six months only 10
are still alive and after the next six months only one."
They take "ideas from everywhere", he says. Speed and the
interest of the customers are important. "It's the innovation
And then there's an even newer project, Dream Orange. "It's
reserved for a few clients," with 500-1,000 partners. "We give
them information about the technology from our laboratories,
new and confidential," says Bonhomme. Among the partners are
"artists, small companies" but even though "it's very open",
Orange keeps a firm hold on the gate: "You can apply and we
decide whether to accept you," he smiles.
In this vast playing field Bonhomme and his team have to
exercise some discipline. "We can't allocate resources to all
the topics," he says. "We don't want to be me-toos. We have to
choose, and we have to organise the assessment of the
performance of our research resources. We are trying to develop
a culture of progress and measurement."
To that end France Telecom has 35 research objects. "The figure
is very precise," says Bonhomme, with a note of perhaps wonder
in his voice. Many of them include what you'd expect in a
telecoms research unit — radio, fibre, evolution of
copper; IMS and Web 2.0; LTE and 4G, "that kind of thing", he
says, as well as middleware and applications.
"As an overlay, we're looking at the development of ways to
interconnect platforms and services," he adds. "That will be
more and more important in our business — because a
mash-up of elements is the way we will set up services in the
The use of that term "mash-up" is significant. It's used by web
geeks in their 20s, people who are developing some fascinating
and fun applications with web technology.
But there are not many people of the level of Bonhomme
— head of research in one of Europe's largest
operators, someone who's been in the company for decades
— who can use "mash-up" unselfconsciously as a way of
describing future policy.
That in itself promises interesting times for Orange Labs and
for France Telecom. GTB