Apple: Poachers will be punished

Did Apple try to strong-arm Palm into a 'don't touch ours, we won't touch yours' hiring arrangement? If so, it may have run afoul of antitrust laws

It seems Steve Jobs prefers his eggs-ecutives fried, not poached. And that could place him in boiling water with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Smoking-gun e-mails unearthed by Bloomberg suggest that back in August 2007, the Pope of 1 Infinite Loop contacted then Palm CEO Ed Colligan with a deal: Keep your dirty palms (ahem) off our top talent, and we'll do the same.

[ Palm isn't alone in Apple's cross-hairs. Get Cringely's take on the battle with Google: "Apple vs. Google: This time it's personal." | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Colligan not only said thanks, but no thanks, he also casually mentioned that such collusion would probably be looked upon with disfavor by Johnny Law. Per Bloomberg:

"Your proposal that we agree that neither company will hire the other's employees, regardless of the individual’s desires, is not only wrong, it is likely illegal," Colligan said to Jobs, 54, according to the communications.

This whole thing really started when former Apple iPod impresario Jon Rubenstein jumped ship to Palm just as the Jesus Phone was being unveiled to the world. Lo and behold, a few years later we have the Palm Pre -- the most iPhone-like cell phone this side of Cupertino. As of last June, Rubenstein is Palm's CEO, and the war between Apple and Palm is now fully underway.

The feds are already digging into alleged anti-poaching agreements between Apple, Google, Yahoo, and others, which if true would represent collusion between the companies -- an antitrust no-no. This is sure to toss some gasoline onto that fire.

As the Mercury News' John Boudreau notes, there are situations where nonpoaching agreements are prefectly legal:

...such as when they form close partnerships that give managers deep knowledge of their collaborators' rank and file, he said. Non-solicitation agreements are also permitted when one company acquires another, say a startup. The stipulation prevents the founder from leaving with his top lieutenants to immediately launch a competing company.

IANAL, but the Apple-Palm scenario really doesn't seem to fit.

Of course, Jobs is the Teflon CEO. Almost nothing tarnishes him, from his near-pathological desire for secrecy to his well-known tirades against other Appletons.

The Bloomberg report was careful to note that it did not see any communications where Jobs directly made the nonpoaching offer, only the ones where Colligan rejected it. However, Jobs did make a not-so-veiled threat about "having more patents and more money than Palm" if it came down to a legal grudge match. That sounds like Jobs to me.

As PCworld's Tech Inciter David Coursey notes:

It is disappointing, but hardly amazing, that Jobs would try to do something that shows such disrespect to the engineers and others who actually create the products he gets credit for....Steve, there is an easy way to "stop this" that isn't nearly so likely to trigger a federal investigation: Stop treating your people like indentured servants. Treat them well, pay them what they are worth, and accept that even then some will want to leave for different, even greener pastures.

Will this be the thing that finally brings down the Annointed One? Somehow I doubt it. The most I see coming out of this are a long legal wrangle, followed by some kind of settlement involving fines and a vow to "do better next time."

But it does indicate the kinds of stakes at play here in mobile wars, how far companies are willing to go to protect their turf, and just how nasty it's likely to get.

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