Apple is ready to start a new chapter in the history of the iPod with a new leader for that group.
The company's selection of Mark Papermaster as the new head of iPod and iPhone hardware engineering points the way toward a more sophisticated future for Apple's mobile computers, as Apple has been hinting for over a year. The veteran chip and system designer will be tasked with overseeing the transformation of the iPod lineup from relatively simple music players to complex and powerful mobile devices, with the iPod Touch as the first example.
Longtime Apple executive Tony Fadell is stepping down to make way for Papermaster. Fadell's place in tech history is assured; after all, he invented the friggin iPod. Apple said Fadell and his wife, Danielle Lambert, vice president of human resources at Apple, are both planning to spend more time with their family and less time with Apple, although neither is leaving the company completely.
As always with these kinds of high-profile executive moves, the question "jumped or pushed?" comes up. There doesn't appear to be any evidence as yet that Fadell had done anything to put him on CEO Steve Jobs' bad side; while iPod growth has stagnated, that's more a function of market saturation than any wrong decisions made by Apple.
Fadell is credited with having brought to Apple the idea of a hardware music player married to a digital music store. That idea worked out pretty well, turning the iPod into one of the most iconic consumer electronics devices ever created and giving Apple a new direction in the tech and music industries.
But over the past year or so, the definition of the iPod has begun to change. At one point, iPods were all about sleek design and style married to a relatively simple user interface. But Jobs believes that the mobile computers of the future will win or lose the public's heart based on the quality of their software, which means that the plain old iPod is going to need some top-notch mobile hardware.
That's where Papermaster comes in. At first glance, it might seem a little weird to tap a server executive with no consumer electronics experience for one of the tech industry's most visible consumer electronics jobs.
And there's a legal component to this hire as well, don't forget. IBM is suing Papermaster for breaking the terms of a noncompete agreement with the company, and reiterated Tuesday morning its intention to "vigorously pursue this case in court." Its task might be more difficult after Tuesday's announcement, given that Papermaster intends to oversee a category of Apple's business that doesn't list IBM as a competitor.
But Papermaster has spent a career working on the design of powerful chips. During the last decade or so, that field has required a strict focus on energy efficiency; learning how to squeeze more performance out of the chip while reducing or controlling the amount of power needed to run the chip. And for the last several years, he has overseen IBM's blade server business, where strong performance in a tight, constrained package is the name of the game.
This is precisely the challenge facing Apple at this stage of the iPod's evolution. Consumers are not going to go back in time and lust after powerful-yet-bulky handheld devices without any style: just ask anyone trying to sell a Mobile Internet Device. But they're going to want more sophisticated software on their devices; in short, they're going to want to do just about anything and everything they can do on a PC or Mac on a handheld computer.
That's going to require a leader who has a keen understanding of where chip design is headed, and how best to make decisions about the inevitable trade-offs between performance, power consumption, and chip size that categorize that field. It's going to require someone who also knows how to design an entire system that adheres to those principles, someone who can bridge the gap between the chip wizards and the industrial designers.
Future iPods will make their name--one way or another--as computers linked to Apple's enhancements to OS X, the mobile operating system on the iPhone and iPod Touch. As Scott Forstall's group adds sophistication to that software, Papermaster's group is going to have to support those advances with powerful hardware that doesn't compromise battery life or Jonny Ive's design principles.
Fadell may not have wanted to take on such a challenge. The man has plenty of money and little to prove. Alternatively, Jobs may have decided that Apple needed someone with broader system and chip design experience to take over the management of the iPod group. In these early hours, we just don't know.
But one thing is clear. Apple is planning for a future where it treats the iPod and iPhone like it does the Mac, with separate software and hardware engineering teams that work together to design the finished product.
And it's also clear that Apple's definition of hardware engineering extends to the components themselves. The new head of Mac hardware engineering, Bob Mansfield, also has a background in chip design at graphics pioneer SGI. Apple acquired P.A. Semi earlier in the year to focus on chip design for iPhones and iPod Touches.
Earlier this year, we wondered about the future of the iPod. As the year closes, Apple is making its intentions clear: the iPod is growing up.