Was Papermaster binned by Apple way before Antennagate?

9th Aug 2010 | 14:04

Was Papermaster binned by Apple way before Antennagate?

Culture clash to blame?

Mark Papermaster, the senior executive that Apple worked so hard to pry from the 25-year grip of former employer IBM, is leaving the company after only two years in charge of the iPod and iPhone engineering teams.

Inevitably, there's speculation that he's been fired because of the iPhone 4's much-publicised aerial problems. But it may not be that simple.

Papermaster's job at Apple was not exactly a natural leap from his role at IBM, where he oversaw the development of blade servers - highly technical, unsexy, generally invisible kit for corporate IT farms.

That made him a surprising choice to head development of the world's most covetable consumer devices, and in fact he wasn't Apple's ideal candidate.

This normally private bit of corporate gossip became public when documents were released during the legal battle over Papermaster's right to move to a rival company. As reported at the time by AppleInsider, Apple started its search in 2007 for a successor to Tony Fadell - essentially the inventor of the iPod, and a hard pair of shoes to fill - and immediately hit a brick wall:

"Although several of the people we interviewed possessed the technical skills necessary to understand the complex design of the iPod and iPhone, they lacked the managerial and leadership skills… Moreover, in many cases we did not believe that the candidates would fit into Apple's culture."

Long shot

These words may have come back to haunt HR boss Danielle Lambert, who eventually hired Papermaster as one of several recommendations from Bob Mansfield, the respected head of the Mac engineering division. The IBM veteran was "near the bottom of the list" and "a long shot" in every respect except his general knowledge of semiconductors. It seems to have been his personality and leadership skills that swung it.

Not for long. According to a Wall Street Journal story yesterday, "Several people familiar with Mr Papermaster's situation said his departure was driven by a broader cultural incompatibility." In other words, he just didn't fit in.

Speaking to the Guardian, Brian Marshall, an analyst with US-based Gleacher & Company, expressed this rather nicely in Jobsian terms: "At the end of the day, it might have been that he didn't have enough T-shirts and blue jeans in his closet."

Steve is, of course, notorious for his uncompromising management style. As Leander Kahney, writing for Wired in 2008, put it: "Whereas the rest of the tech industry may motivate employees with carrots, Jobs is known as an inveterate stick man." As Steve himself puts it, "My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better." Which is a long way from saying "My job is to chuck them out over one mistake."

Inherited problem?

Was Antennagate even Papermaster's mistake? Although in overall charge of hardware development, he must have inherited Apple's aerial development programme, and this was some way outside his own field: IBM doesn't make mobile phones.

Apparently the issues with the external aerial configuration, an innovation that seems to have been favoured by Jonathan Ive, had been openly discussed for some time. Ultimately, the decision to go with the iPhone 4's design would have been Jobs'. It doesn't ring true that he'd blame someone else for a factor he'd already been made aware of before taking that decision.

Of course, the aerial hasn't been the only problem with the iPhone 4. Apple has also failed to produce the white edition, which remains delayed due to manufacturing difficulties. But you'd expect a head further down the management chain to be on the block for such a specific technical gaffe. In any case, isn't this, again, more in Ive's department?

One way to approach the question of what provoked an employee's departure is to look for the first signs of him being sidelined. As tech pundit John Gruber has pointed out, at the high-profile launch of the iPhone 4 back in June, not only was Papermaster not wheeled out to talk about the product in general, but even the semiconductor stuff was handled in the video presentation by Bob Mansfield - the man who originally, gingerly, recommended him for the role.

As my granny used to say: you don't have a dog and bark yourself. Not unless you picked the wrong dog.

Apple didn't know then that the antenna problem was going to blow up. So was Papermaster already on the way out? It might be even worse than that. An Apple spokesperson told the WSJ that Mansfield, the Mac engineering boss, was already in charge of elements of the iPhone 4, including the A4 processor chip - smack in the one area of technology that Papermaster knew from his IBM job.

If he wasn't responsible for this stuff, what was he responsible for?

Embarrassing as the iPhone 4's problems have been, it seems unlikely that Papermaster is merely taking the fall. Perhaps the biggest reason why he's leaving Apple is that one day everybody sat down and looked at each other and nobody could quite remember what he was doing there in the first place.

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Liked this? Then check out Antennagate: maybe Steve should blog

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