Does Apple Need To Explain iPhone Boss Papermaster's Exit?

Apple hasn't done anything more than confirm Papermaster's departure at this point, but as long as speculation remains -- Papermaster was a key executive in charge of hardware for the iPhone, after all -- Apple won't catch a break from Antennagate any time soon.

Reports surfaced over the weekend that Papermaster, the senior vice president of devices hardware engineering, had left Apple. Apple spokesperson Steve Dowling confirming to several news outlets only that Papermaster was out, and that Bob Mansfield, senior vice president for Macintosh hardware engineering, is stepping in.

Neither Papermaster nor Apple has yet confirmed the circumstances of Papermaster's departure, but on Saturday The New York Times referenced a source with knowledge of the situation as saying Papermaster was pushed out "over a series of hardware problems."

Papermaster's hiring at Apple was itself a media circus. A 25-year IBM veteran, Papermaster was sued by his former employer on Oct. 22, 2008 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan; Big Blue has hoped to block Papermaster's move to Apple and claiming that he was aware of "significant and highly confidential IBM trade secrets." Apple and IBM finally came to terms in January of 2009 and Papermaster joined Apple in April that same year.

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Fast forward to the present, and Apple is still reeling from the public relations effects of so-called antennagate: a long and drawn-out public flogging about a design flaw in its iPhone 4.

When the iPhone 4 went on sale in late June, users complained about how gripping the phone a certain way meant a drop in reception. Apple's response -- hold the phone a different way, in essence -- earned it a backlash for how it was handling the issue, one that escalated once Consumer Reports identified the "death grip" issue and said it would not recommend the iPhone 4 because of it.

During a press conference in July to explain iPhone 4 issues and offer users free bumper cases, Apple CEO Steve Jobs further angered consumers and many competitors by asserting reception problems based on grip happen with other smartphones, too. (Papermaster, as many news outlets noted, was not a participant in the conference.)

Antennagate appears to have had little material effect on Apple, despite slight declines in its stock price. But the specter of the antenna issues with iPhone 4 looms large for Apple in 2010, especially since many Apple smartphone competitors, including its many rivals making Google Android phones, are looking to exploit any weakness and gain consumer mindshare. And the exit of one of Apple's most visible hardware executives under unspecific circumstances certainly gives the competition another opportunity.