Apple gambling on Papermaster's leadership skills

New iPhone chief Mark Papermaster won't be using his chip development skills at Apple, having been chosen for a completely new role based on his leadership ability.

Mark Papermaster was chosen to lead a team developing future iPhones, even though the company worried about his lack of direct consumer electronics experience. Apple

Apple knew full well that Mark Papermaster would have to learn his new role as iPod and iPhone chief "on the job" when it hired him.

Papermaster's former employer, IBM, filed a lawsuit against him last week, claiming that he broke the terms of a noncompete contract with IBM in accepting a high-profile job with Apple. InformationWeek spotted Papermaster's formal response Friday morning, in which he declares that the two companies are not competitors and that his experience at IBM is not the primary reason why Apple sought his services.

The court filings reveal the interesting process Apple used to hire Papermaster to replace Tony Fadell , a longtime executive in charge of Apple's iPod group. And contrary to speculation, it appears that Papermaster-- a well-respected chip executive --will have nothing to do with chip design at Apple on Day 1.

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Apple began searching within the consumer electronics industry in October 2007 for a lieutenant and eventual successor to Fadell, but it couldn't find anyone it liked, according to the court filing. Instead, the company decided to search for an executive with strong overall technology skills who would be a good fit inside Apple, modeling the search on the process used to find current Mac hardware leader Bob Mansfield .

Mansfield was the one who suggested Papermaster as a candidate, though he didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for his college buddy. On a list of potential candidates sent to Vice President of Human Resources Danielle Lambert (who is married to Fadell), Mansfield described Papermaster: "Mark fits the bill wrt (with respect to) systems and semiconductor understanding, but in every other way is a long shot."

Nonetheless, he was brought into Cupertino in February 2008 to interview with CEO Steve Jobs and Fadell. Apple liked Papermaster in many ways, but it wasn't sure that his experience in server development was the proper background for the role--especially in light of the fact that in February, Apple was working hard on getting the iPhone 3G out the door , and it wanted someone who could hit the ground running.

However, as Lambert said in a statement attached to Papermaster's response, "nobody questioned Mark's ability to lead a development team." The company offered him a role designing laptops, and while Papermaster was intrigued by the possibility of working at Apple, he wasn't all that crazy about that particular role.

But after Apple got this year's crop of iPods out the door in September, the search for Fadell's replacement intensified. Papermaster was offered that role, and he jumped at what he called "the opportunity of a lifetime."

As Papermaster sees it, his role is fairly narrow: he's tasked with overseeing the development of iPod and iPhone hardware. He won't be working on personal computers, he won't be working on servers, and perhaps most surprisingly, he won't be working on microprocesors.

Papermaster's court filing says the P.A. Semi team acquired by Apple earlier this year is part of the group managed by Mansfield, not part of the iPod and iPhone group. That's a surprising organizational decision, given that Jobs has said publicly that P.A. Semi was brought into the fold to work on chips for the iPhone and iPod Touch .

Despite a career spent developing chips at IBM, Papermaster supposedly won't have anything to do with Apple's budding chip team. CNET

The filing notes that Apple currently acquires iPhone microprocessors from an outside vendor, widely believed to be Samsung. Unsurprisingly, it stops short of mentioning whether or not Apple plans to eventually design and develop its own microprocessors for that product, as seems evident .

In a declaration accompanying the formal court response, Papermaster notes that "it is also my understanding that I will not be responsible for developing the microprocessors that are used in the iPod and iPhone products, but rather those will be procured from sources outside my group." Whether those sources are outside Papermaster's group but inside Apple is left unstated, but Papermaster also says, "I will be acting solely as a product manager--I am not being hired to develop technology across product lines."

An Apple representative declined to comment on Apple's organizational structure or the court filings, only to say, "We think IBM will see that the iPod and iPhone are not competitive with their business." IBM likewise declined to comment on Papermaster's response beyond the statements they have already made regarding their intention to "vigorously" pursue the case against Papermaster.

Papermaster's argument against the lawsuit is that since Apple and IBM aren't true competitors, and since he isn't working on the small slice of Apple's business--servers--that does overlap with IBM's business, the noncompete should not apply. Likewise, he believes that he's not in a position to divulge any IBM trade secrets because "Mr. Papermaster's position at Apple will involve a completely different product using different technology that Mr. Papermaster will have to learn on the job."

It's quite possible that Papermaster's lawyers are deliberately downplaying his connections to Apple's budding chip design team in order to make this lawsuit go away, since the chip angle is IBM's only real argument. Even if Papermaster isn't directly involved on a day-to-day basis with the P.A. Semi team, he will be in charge of specifying the hardware requirements for the iPhone, and part of that includes the chips that go into that system.

Apple appears to be making a bit of a gamble with this hire, entrusting the care of what has become its most important product to an executive who, though well-regarded, has no experience working inside the fast-paced consumer electronics industry. And the most relevant part of his IBM experience doesn't appear to be part of his marching orders at Apple.

But the company believes that his leadership skills will serve him well at Apple, according to one of the court filings: "Apple has hired Mark Papermaster because he has strong general engineering skills, is an outstanding leader, and because we believe he will be a good cultural match at Apple."

About the author

    Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.

     

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