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Friday, November 07, 2008, 03:50 pm PT (06:50 pm ET)

Court response defends new Apple mobile hire's jump from IBM

Apple's contentious decision to hire a former IBM executive has been explained by the iPhone and iPod maker — and the new recruit himself — as a carefully thought-out decision that doesn't run afoul of earlier agreements.

While IBM believes that Mark Papermaster's choice to replace Tony Fadell in Apple's handheld division violates exit clauses in his contract forbidding work with a competitor for up to a year after leaving, court submissions found by InformationWeek reveal a response from Papermaster which asserts that there is no conflict between his tentative new role and his earlier work.

His argument centers around the specific nature of the products. IBM, he says, focuses exclusively on server-side hardware and software, pure data storage, as well as the services to support them both. None of these apply to his work with Apple's handheld group, which covers very home-friendly devices like iPhone and iPod touch. That the two businesses would ever come into conflict would reportedly be a surprise.

""I do not recall a single instance of Apple being described as a competitor of IBM during my entire tenure at IBM," Papermaster says.

He further argues that he won't be involved with Apple acquisition PA Semi's new projects in his leadership position, although this statement may be challenged given Apple's recent confirmation that PA Semi is building iPhone ARM chips and so stands a possibility of having contact with Papermaster. The filing insists that PA Semi reports to Mansfield's Mac group, not the handheld group's eventual leader.

Apple meanwhile supports its new hire's point of view, according to extra details unearthed by CNet. The electronics maker admits in its own commentary that Papermaster was chosen for his technical knowledge — Mac hardware chief Bob Mansfield said early on in the hiring process that he "fits the bill" for knowledge of semiconductors — but that it was ultimately looking for a senior executive first and specific capabilities second.

Appropriately, Apple's Human Resources VP (and wife of Tony Fadell) Danielle Lambert has defended the entrant for his managerial skills and says that "nobody questioned" his ability to head up a development team, which ties directly with his new position. In a general statement, Apple touted both its new employee's engineering skills as well as his "outstanding" leadership as motivating factors for signing him on with the firm. Fadell and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs are both known to have interviewed Papermaster during the process, a fact which Barclays Capital analyst Ben Reitzes suggests played significantly into the ultimate decision to take a chance on this new candidate.

"Papermaster’s hiring also shows that Steve Jobs remains engaged and plays a key role in attracting talent," Reitzes says.

Whether or not Apple and Papermaster are sincere has been called into question; CNet suggests that his claims of a too-narrow scope for his work may be a feint meant to dismiss the lawsuit even if it's possible he may be in the position to expose the trade secrets at the heart of IBM's complaint. As the new executive would still have some say over the features and speed of iPhone and iPod processors on an abstract level, he may be tangentially involved even if his level prevents him from directly guiding the chip designs.

The New York-based server giant isn't waiting for a more definitive explanation of its former worker's new job, however: in addition to its lawsuit, IBM is blocking Papermaster's post-employment benefits.