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Cover of the Spring 2010 issue




Jim Thompson: Building a wireless world

Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson view larger image

Driving through San Diego’s Sorrento Valley, where rolling hills are populated with dozens of gleaming buildings bearing the Qualcomm Inc. logo, it’s hard to imagine a time when Qualcomm would have been considered a corporate underdog.

But that time was just two decades ago, when the era of digital cellular technology was beginning to take shape. Jim Thompson, a three-degree graduate of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, joined Qualcomm during those pivotal early days, when a high-stakes technology gamble fueled the company’s meteoric rise.

Thompson, vice president of Qualcomm CDMA Technology (QCT), today leads engineering efforts in the Qualcomm chipset division. CDMA — short for code division multiple access — is the heart and soul of Qualcomm, and the platform technology that enabled the explosion in “smart phone” capability that the world enjoys today.

But CDMA was viewed as a longshot in those early days, Thompson says. At the time, the cellular phone industry was searching for the best answer to moving from “the scratchy analog days” of wireless (Remember the 2-pound brick phone?) into the tremendous promise of digital wireless. The core question: Which technology will support the broadest consumer usage and the fastest and most dependable cellular transmission?

“We started out with a relatively small group of people working on this new technology. We felt like we were going to change the world with it, and I think we did. The dramatic growth of the company forced young guys like me — who were barely shaving — to take on leadership roles.”

This is a tale of two competing approaches. The majority of the industry backed a system known as TDMA — time division multiple access — as the best solution, Thompson says. Both CDMA and TDMA aim to accomplish the same thing — essentially, to enable multiple users to share the same frequency or channel on the radio spectrum — but with fundamentally different approaches.

One metaphor about the technologies imagines conversations at a cocktail party. The TDMA approach would require having each person at a party take turns speaking in a round-robin fashion to complete a conversation. CDMA, on the other hand, would have all conversations taking place at once, but each one in a different language.

“One of our lead engineers did a study and found that he could improve the capacity of the cellular network using CDMA by a factor of 40,” Thompson says. “TDMA was expected to improve it by a factor of three. That’s when you could say that we really bet the company on this technology.”

Facing industry skepticism, Qualcomm forged on with CDMA development, using profits from a satellite tracking system it had developed in the 1980s for the trucking industry. When the company started demonstrating success, Thompson says the competition became fierce.

“Things got really heated over time,” Thompson says. “There were stories about how CDMA couldn’t possibly work because it defied the laws of physics. There were big technical and legal battles over CDMA, as well as battles in the press. In the end, we prevailed simply because the technology was so much better.”

The rewards of that risk have been great. As the largest fabless semiconductor producer in the world, Qualcomm sells more than a billion chips a year, all for the cellular industry. Fortune magazine this year ranked Qualcomm No. 9 in the list of the top-100 companies to work for.

For Thompson, it has been an incredibly rewarding ride.

“I feel so lucky to be part of this industry, starting at Qualcomm when I did,” Thompson says. “We started out with a relatively small group of people working on this new technology. We felt like we were going to change the world with it, and I think we did. The dramatic growth of the company forced young guys like me — who were barely shaving — to take on big leadership roles.”

The big-picture impact of the cellular industry also inspires Thompson. “Four billion people now own a cell phone. And close to a billion people use a 3G phone, a very data-capable device. When you think about Internet access today,” he adds, “more of it will come through cell phones than through a desktop or laptop computer.”

As the head of engineering, Thompson now works with a new generation of engineers and a new set of challenges. Foremost is reducing power consumption in cellular phones, he says. With a tiny battery and little surface area to dissipate heat, the growth of cell phone capability rests with packing more and better features into a day’s supply of battery power.

One way Qualcomm is answering the challenge to increase battery life is with mirasol display technology. Qualcomm has developed a reflective color display that doesn’t require power-hungry backlighting. Thompson says a display pixel made from thin-film optics using interferometric modulation reflects color in natural light. He likens it to the physical phenomenon that produces vivid colors found in multilayered butterfly wings.

Thompson earned a bachelor’s (1985), master’s (1987) and PhD (1991) in electrical and computer engineering, and studied under ECE Professor Jim Beyer. He credits his success to getting a mix of engineering fundamentals and a broad education outside the field. (His father, Howard Thompson, is a professor emeritus of business at UW-Madison.)

Says Thompson: “Graduate school was about developing an independence — being able to think for myself, manage my own time, pursue my own ideas and gain the confidence that you can actually accomplish something without a professor assigning you homework.”

Thompson says he remembers stumbling across a Forbes magazine article in graduate school titled “Over the Hill at Forty,” and at the time the concept seemed ridiculous. But after 20 years in the technology business, he says it now makes perfect sense.

“The only way to avoid becoming obsolete in the technology world is to keep learning and relearning,” he says. “What’s important is always changing. The broad education I received at Wisconsin is instrumental in allowing me to keep up with changes and branch into areas outside my expertise.”

— Brian Mattmiller
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