Here’s my brief entry in the speculation derby surrounding the departure of Mark Papermaster from Apple. Assuming Papermaster is out at least partially due to the iPhone 4 antenna and not some completely unrelated matter, and assuming Apple really did know about the iPhone 4’s antenna problems even before Papermaster was hired, it may seem strange or even unfair that he’s ended up as the fall guy. I won’t comment on the fairness of the decision, but I can certainly imagine a scenario where his ouster is well within the expectations of a job as a high-level executive in a big corporation.

Imagine the following events. Papermaster is hired by Apple and put in charge of the iPhone 4 hardware. He’s brought up to speed on the project, including the unique characteristics of the external antenna. At some point later, a final decision has to be made on the design: go or no go?

While it’s clear that the buck stops with Steve Jobs on all decisions at Apple, that doesn’t mean he makes all the decisions. This is why Apple hires people like Mark Papermaster in the first place. It’s reasonable to expect that Jobs would defer to the guy he fought to hire when it came to this question. And so Jobs would ask Papermaster, is the design ready to go or not? And what about that antenna touching issue? Is that a big deal, or will most people not even notice?

Now imagine that Papermaster tells Jobs that, yes, it’s a real limitation in the antenna design, but that the advantages—increased range and room for a bigger battery—more than make up for it. Now imagine Jobs pushes further: “While you may feel that way, Mark, will the public agree? Will this end up being an issue?” And now suppose Papermaster says no, it won’t be an issue.

Either implicitly or explicitly, Papermaster would be putting his reputation on the line. This is what his job is all about: making decisions. This particular decision is not about technology or manufacturing; it’s a judgement call about how the public (and press) will react to something. But that’s part of his job too. And the harder he fought for this particular decision, the more he’d have on the line when he turned out to be wrong.

Anyway, like I said, this is all just speculation. I really have no idea why Mark Papermaster left Apple. But I find the scenario described above eminently plausible. Furthermore, if it were true, I don’t think it would speak ill of Papermaster. Executive management at this level is a high-stakes endeavor. The rewards are big, but so are the risks—and no one can be right all the time. If you’re the new guy and this is your first big call on the biggest project in the company, well, you can end up back in the job market much sooner than you expected. C’est la vie.