Executive Scuttlebutt

Robert X. Cringely’s latest column regards Apple’s replacement of Tony Fadell with Mark Papermaster as head of iPod and iPhone engineering:

So here’s what’s going on with Tony Fadell. First, he was vulnerable as a charismatic leader in his own right who has been talked about in the press as a possible heir to Jobs. That alone meant he had to die, but it wasn’t enough to mean that he had to die just now. That decision required an external variable in the form of former IBM executive Mark Papermaster.

The first thing worth noting is that Papermaster was not hired to take the exact same job that Fadell held. Papermaster’s job is a superset of Fadell’s. It’s right there in the press release Apple issued a week ago — Fadell’s title was “senior vice president of the iPod Division”, Papermaster’s title is “senior vice president of Devices Hardware Engineering”. The PR describes Papermaster’s responsibilities:

Apple today announced that Mark Papermaster is joining the Company as senior vice president of Devices Hardware Engineering, reporting to Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Papermaster, who comes to Apple from IBM, will lead Apple’s iPod and iPhone hardware engineering teams.

Tony Fadell only oversaw the iPod division, and had very little, if anything, to do with the iPhone. And, according to multiple sources familiar with Apple’s engineering management, the iPod Touch has been produced by the iPhone team, not by Fadell’s iPod division. The last new product that Fadell oversaw was the new iPod Nano.

So Fadell was never in any way in charge of the iPhone or iPod Touch; Papermaster’s job description indicates he will be directly responsible for all iPhone and iPod hardware engineering.

The iPhone’s software is overseen by Scott Forstall (Senior Vice President, iPhone Software), and, at a technical level, Bertrand Serlet (Senior Vice President, Software Engineering). There is no such division between hardware and software with the traditional (pre-Touch) iPods. The story I’ve heard is that at the outset of Apple’s iPhone initiative, there was a heated debate within Apple as to what OS should be used. Forstall and Serlet pushed for using OS X. Fadell (and, according to one source, former Apple executive Steve Sakoman) pushed for using something else.1 Obviously, Forstall and Serlet won this debate, and, hyperbolic though it may sound, it may prove to be the single best early design decision in the entire history of the company. It seems hard to imagine the iPhone any other way now, but at the outset it was not a foregone conclusion that a stripped down and revamped version of OS X would work for a mobile phone.

And so I think Cringely is right that the basic story line is that Steve Jobs wanted to hire Papermaster and so Fadell had to go, and not that Fadell first decided to leave and Papermaster was then picked to replace him.2 But Fadell’s ticket has probably been punched ever since the iPhone shipped and proved to be an enormous success.

Without question, Fadell’s tenure at Apple has itself been an enormous success. He came to Apple in early 2001 with the idea for the iPod and an integrated online music store to complement it, and it turned into one of the biggest hits in consumer electronics history. The iPod and iTunes reshaped the music industry, and have made a mountain of cash for Apple. But the iPhone is the new thing, and Fadell was not involved in its development. The word on the street in Cupertino is not that Fadell was pushed out the door, but that he was never offered a role like Papermaster’s, encompassing all of Apple’s handheld hardware engineering. The iPhone has eclipsed the iPod as the A Team at Apple, and Tony Fadell does not sound like a B Team sort of guy.

Cringely’s speculation about Jobs in any way feeling threatened by Fadell, or that “Jobs ultimately betrays all of his direct reports in this manner”, is just goofy. Steve Jobs is not insecure; if he were, he’d have canned someone like Jonathan Ive long before putting the squeeze to Tony Fadell — Ive is far better-known than Fadell outside the company, and is far more popular inside.3 For a company of Apple’s size and success, the relative stability of its executive team is remarkable.

  1. Updated, 13 Nov. 2008: The original text of this footnote read:

    None of the sources I spoke to knew what specifically Fadell had in mind. But the idea wasn’t that they would use some other OS to build the iPhone as we know it, but rather to build what would have been a very different iPhone. The best guess is that Fadell was pushing for something more along the lines of an iPod that could make phone calls, and less along the lines of a new handheld computing platform.

    However, I now have a one-word answer from a knowledgeable source as to which OS Fadell wanted to use for the phone: Linux. ↩︎

  2. Cringely speculates that the “Senior VP, Devices Hardware Engineering” title is just a placeholder for Papermaster while Apple waits for his IBM non-compete to expire, at which point his true role at the company will be revealed to be leading the chip design team Apple acquired when they bought PA Semi. I have no doubt that Papermaster’s expertise and experience in this field is a big part of why Apple wanted to hire him, but leading the hardware engineering division responsible for all iPods and iPhones is a far bigger and more prestigious gig than leading a chip design team. I don’t think there’s anything secret at all about Papermaster’s intended role at Apple. ↩︎

  3. One source put it to me this way: “Steve Jobs is a good jerk, Tony Fadell is a bad jerk.” ↩︎