February 1, 2023

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James Kim Talks About the “Tetris” of Hardware Engineering and Saga

The phrase “greater than the sum of its parts” is particularly true when it comes to smartphones like the upcoming Saga. No individual component or feature defines the totality of the experience, even though those pieces must still be chosen with care. Our VP of Hardware Engineering, James Kim, is one of those responsible for making sure each one of those details is carefully selected and precisely integrated, and I recently had the pleasure of speaking with him about the “Lego” of smartphone design, changing standards, how smartphones compare to other hardware categories, and his work on the Saga. 

Titles can be hard for the layman to wade through. Can you tell people what being a VP of Hardware Engineering means? 

So I’m more focused on the electrical side. My main focus is getting the board designed, plus all the electrical components that would be part of it. Typically things like displays and cameras are included, and Nick [Editor’s note: Our Head of Camera] is helping with those. I’m also responsible for the battery and the overall system integration. Usually, electrical engineers are responsible for that, so if there are ESD or EMI failures, we’d be the guys responsible for fixing those. RF is a big part since this is a phone, and I have an RF engineer working with me that I’ve known since my time at Intel. 

We’re fully remote, and I know that it might seem that would make it easier to travel, but I understand that you don’t actually spend most of your time in China. How have recent events impacted things?

The lack of travel has affected things somewhat. We link enough with partners over conference calls, zoom meetings, and all that. There haven’t actually been any issues, but it’s just not the workflow we’re used to. Typically I’d do more factory visits. But I really like remote work otherwise, especially during the pandemic. I’m amazed at how well things have gone for OSOM; we’re really lucky. 

You’ve worked at a lot of places and in a lot of industries: phones at OSOM, Essential, and Samsung; robotics at Neato; wearables at Intel; PDAs at Palm; laptops at HP. In your time, you’ve seen a lot of different product categories and a lot of evolution in the space over the last 30 years. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in that time?

Connectivity — everything has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or 5G now. Every five years or so, some new must-have standard comes out, and everyone’s got chips for it. 

I started my career in Massachusetts at DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation). That was a very old company, maybe before your time. They used to do everything in-house; that’s how Palm was also. But right around 2000 or so, things changed, and we had to start working more with overseas partners, factories, and suppliers. 

Going from Samsung to Palm was like a downgrade, losing wireless, and then Palms picked up that functionality. It’s funny, but the day I left Palm for HP is the day HP bought Palm. I like to say, “they found out I was leaving, so they bought the whole company.”

At HP, I worked on phones and netbooks. We built Google’s first reference design for Chromebooks. But it was all the same building blocks. The availability of all these specialized chips changed the process to be more about gluing things together than discrete design. 

Keats, our CEO, once described it as “Lego.”

Not even Lego; it’s more like Tetris. You have a lot of components on the board, and you have to fit them all together. Just because you have the space doesn’t mean you can actually squeeze it in — you’ve got layout guidelines, and certain parts have to be so far away, particularly for RF and antennas. 

I used to do pure analog design for CRT video monitor boards, which don’t exist anymore. [Laughs.] That sort of tells you how long I’ve been around. At Samsung, I helped create the first dual-mode handset — you know, voice and data. We sold that to AT&T. 

But the evolution of these wireless standards has been the biggest change I’ve noticed, apart from the slowly shrinking (and now expanding) phone sizes. 

I was just talking about that with another person on the team: For years, phones got smaller and smaller, and recently they did the opposite and got bigger and bigger. 

And bigger phones mean bigger batteries. That’s another thing that hasn’t changed much: battery capacity. Tech news makes it seem like there are continuous improvements, but in general, you’re lucky to get a 5% capacity gain every few years. I’ve spent a lot of my career working with battery vendors, and it’s a tricky subject. That’s one of the hard things to work with overseas manufacturers on. 

Since you’ve seen so much change, what do you think is the future of the industry? What will be the biggest disruptor in the next five years?

There’s one thing I know: Software drives hardware improvements. Look at our partnership with Solana and the hardware-backed Seed Vault feature. And there are Apple products — you’ve got basically the same hardware over multiple generations with incremental improvement. The “Lego blocks” are the same overall blocks year to year, but software drives the biggest changes. [Laughs.] Half the time, I don’t know what the software guys are talking about, things change so quickly, but it drives the hardware requirements. 

I don’t see any company coming up with a new set of discrete components to do a brand-new function or any huge evolution purely on the hardware side, outside things getting smaller, faster, and using less power, but that always happens. 

Do you have an opinion on the rise of custom chipsets we’ve seen in phones?

The development cycle is so long that I’m not sure about that yet, especially given my experience at Intel. During my time there, they were trying to come up with new low-power silicon for wearables. And, you know, low-power is not really what Intel is known for. Maybe just because it was Intel, it took forever, and it never really came out. 

How is it working on phones compared to things like wearables, laptops, etc.?

I’ve been with companies that didn’t make phones, but I always come back to making phones, so obviously, there’s something about them I find interesting. I think it just comes down to the fact that I can use it. They’re not one-time things you use and throw away, and they don’t sit in a corner or on a shelf for months. They improve year over year, and you always need them. 

It’s also interesting from a design perspective. You’ve got the same set of building blocks over time, and I’m intimately familiar with all of those. It’s become second nature to design a phone, I know all the tricky parts. That comes from experience — you know you’re gonna get stuck here, you’ll have carrier or antenna issues if you do this, battery issues if you do that, managing thermals. All of these things I can predict and mitigate before I even start; I’m so familiar with phone design. 

What was the hardest thing about working on Saga? 

For me, working remotely made things harder. I didn’t have a lab. I actually think I didn’t need it, things have gone so well, but I just wasn’t used to surrendering that control and not verifying every single detail myself. At Essential, I had to hold the factory’s hands a lot more. 

Not meeting your team members as frequently in person also makes things different. Not that remote work is bad. It has advantages and disadvantages, and I think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but the change itself has been hard. 

One last question: What’s your favorite thing you’ve worked on for the Saga? 

That’s a tough one. The design went very well. That might be it: We did such a good job on hardware that the software just worked. Our first design didn’t need any fixes, really. Our change list from EVT to DVT to PVT [Editor’s note: From engineering test to production-ready hardware] might fit on a single page.

Thanks for your insight, James. I know you’re as excited as I am to see your hardware in customer’s hands. Not much longer to wait!