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In an odd and ironic case of turnabout, a former Apple engineer who left to form his own semiconductor company now says that Apple has been poaching his employees, “suffocating” his small startup and even stifling innovation by doing so.
About a year ago, Gerard Williams III left Apple’s semiconductor engineering team to strike out on his own. Williams, a senior director in platform architecture, had been one of the driving forces behind all of Apple’s 64-bit A-series chips, from the iPhone 5s A7 through to the A12 and A12X chips that powered the iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and most of the current iPad models. In fact, despite his departure prior to the release of the iPhone 11, Williams undoubtedly played a big role in Apple’s A13 chip as well.
Williams’ departure would have been a huge setback for Apple in its own chip engineering efforts, which was likely bad enough, but it later came to light that not only had Williams left to create his own chip company that could ostensibly be an Apple competitor, but that according to Apple, he had actually been planning the move for several years prior to his formal resignation — and doing so on company time.
As a result, Apple filed a lawsuit against Williams last summer for breach of contract, pointing out that his agreement with Apple precluded him from engaging in any business activities that could be considered “competitive with or directly related to Apple’s business or products.”
Williams quickly fired back with his own counterclaims, maintaining that not only were such anti-competition clauses void under California law, but also accusing Apple of invading his privacy by monitoring confidential text messages that were sent and received while he was in Apple’s employ.
However, it seems that courts didn’t agree with Williams’ logic for getting the lawsuit dismissed, with the judge siding with Apple in stating that laws allowing customers to develop new businesses don’t give them carte blanche to plan a competitive activity using their employer’s time and resources, which is the basis of Apple’s claim. Further, the judge also ruled Williams’ text messaging conversations admissible in Apple’s suit, since they presumably were sent using his Apple-issued iPhone, and in at least some cases were being exchanged on company time. In other words, the judge ruled that Apple has every right to bring a lawsuit against an employee who spent his time laying the groundwork for his own competing company while sitting in his office at Apple on company time.
‘Suffocating’ New Technologies
Following his failed attempt to get the lawsuit thrown out, it now seems that Williams is taking a new tact, arguing that the suit should be dismissed because Apple is deliberately using it to “suffocate the creation of new technologies and solutions by a new business, and to diminish the freedom of entrepreneurs to seek out more fulfilling work.”
According to Bloomberg, Williams made the filing late last week in a state court in San Jose, California, where he claims that Apple has tried to block his new firm, Nuvia, from hiring engineers away from Apple while at the same time trying to poach whatever engineers that Nuvia has been able to hire.
Of course, this is arguably a hypocritical claim, but it seems that Williams is trying to play a “David vs Goliath” card here, insisting that since Apple is the much larger player, it shouldn’t be trying to steal talent from the little guy, but also implying that Williams’ company should have carte blanche in trying to lure away Apple engineers, despite the fact that Williams himself is undoubtedly leveraging the relationship he had with many of those engineers while he was employed at Apple as their senior director.
According to the filing, Apple’s Vice-President of Silicon Engineering, Sribalan Santhanam warned Williams that there would be “consequences” if Nuvia continued trying to hire Apple engineers. In what seems like a rehash of his earlier claims that Apple was spying on him, Williams is also accusing Apple of monitoring the conversations that he has with Apple employees, and that Apple’s HR department has obliquely forbidden its staff from talking to Williams, using what he calls a “heavy-handed campaign.”
Meanwhile, Williams insists that he’s maintained an appropriate distance from Apple, claiming that it’s Apple employees who have been pursuing him, and not the other way around, and that he’s actually had to rebuff at least one Apple engineer who was voluntarily sharing “Apple Confidential” information with him, telling the engineer that this was “inappropriate and unwelcome.”
Williams also adds in the filing that Apple went to great lengths to keep him from leaving, a claim that isn’t at all surprising considering how valuable Williams undoubtedly was to Apple’s own chip design efforts. Apple’s Senior VP of Hardware Technologies, Johny Srouji, offered Williams a six-month paid sabbatical to stay on board, and at a going-away party gave him a one-off iPad engraved with signatures from Apple’s top executives. However, these revelations also suggest that Williams not only left Apple on good terms, but that Apple likely had no clue as to what he was really up to until after his departure.
It’s important to keep in mind here that the courts have not ruled on whether Apple is right — they’ve merely said that the suit should be allowed to proceed so that it can be heard on its own merits, rather than being summarily dismissed. This latest filing is another attempt by Williams to get Apple’s lawsuit dismissed entirely, but even if Williams latest petition is also denied, Apple will still need to prove its case in an actual court battle.