Why did Apple hire away IBM's Mark Papermaster?

The news of this fairly slow week for Apple watchers came in the form of a lawsuit from Apple's PowerPC partner, IBM, who apparently are trying to protect some chip design IP. What are Apple's intentions with Mr. Papermaster?

IBM’s Case: Noncompete Agreement Details

The details of the IBM Noncompetition Agreement are significant. The agreement states that Papermaster agrees that he will not (within 1 year of termination) “engage in or associate with (a) any ‘Business Enterprise’ or (b) any significant competitor or major competitor of the Company…”. By “Business Enterprise” the agreement means any entity or entity that owns or controls a significant interest in any entity that engages in competition with the “business units or divisions of the Company” (IBM) in which you have worked at any time during the two year period prior to the termination. The agreement further defines “engage in” completely to include both consultant and contractor status, so even if Papermaster didn’t join Apple as an employee he would still be barred from engaging with Apple.

Papermaster's non compete contract

IBM’s case based on this Noncompetition Agreement seems to hinge on Apple being deemed:

  • a “significant competitor” to IBM
  • a “major competitor of the company” {that being IBM}
  • or an entity that engages in competition with business units or divisions of IBM

First, let's look at Mr. Papermaster's (that name doesn't get old, does it?) background.

In the late 90's Papermaster was one of the main drivers of the PowerPC chip. He likely had lots of interaction with Apple at this point as they were the PowerPC platform's biggest customer. The PowerPC 630 (or Power3) was ultimately used in IBM mainframe computers but was originally built with the intention of going in desktops - perhaps Apple's. Papermaster was one of the main architects of this processor.

Since then, he has authored many papers on chip design and is generally regarded as one of the leaders in the chip design field.

Then a few years ago, he was put in charge of IBM's blade server division. I think this point is moot because I don't think Apple is going after the blade server market. I'd frankly be surprised if they put any more resources into their Xserves or server hardware in general. Apple, the consumer company, just doesn't spend much in the way on resources on servers.

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An Apple for Your Enterprise?

People have speculated that Apple may want Papermaster to help build the hardware infrastructure for Apple's cloud effort. While hardware is no doubt a key portion of the cloud puzzle, Apple's biggest weakness in this area is back-end server software.

Plus, the terms of the suit laid out above seem directly in line with chip design. Apple isn't competing with IBM in the blade field. Nor are they competing directly in the cloud computing space. But they are likely going to be competing with IBM in the chip field fairly soon.

So, let's focus on the PowerPC portion of Papermaster's resume. As I mentioned earlier, he is one of the leaders in chip design field.

PA Semi, the company Apple purchased a few months ago, was going up against IBM in selling PowerPCs (PA Semi's PWREfficient was in the running to replace the IBM G5 when Apple moved to Intel). PA Semi, as a unit of Apple, is still fulfilling PowerPC contracts for embedded systems for military and other uses.

But will the final product that Apple is working on be a PowerPC processor? Probably not. One of PA Semi's engineers let slip a few months ago that he is working on an ARM-based processor that will be in future Apple products. Steve Jobs had mentioned this earlier in an interview with the New York Times. However, Steve Jobs has been known to throw his competitors off of the trail with offhand remarks.

Also, as a commenter points out, Apple is hiring CPU engineers for high performance chips, not just for mobile devices.

So what will become of this hire? My feeling is that he will add a lot of talent to the PA Semi team and his mentoring will help bring in other talented chip engineers to Apple. That is, unless IBM blocks him.

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