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Start-up hopes to chip away at mobile PC market

The secretive Transmeta unveiled last week its line of low-power microprocessors designed for laptops and handheld computers.

©Los Angeles Times, published January 24, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO -- A Silicon Valley start-up last week announced a family of microprocessors that experts say could radically reduce the complexity and cost of microchips while improving battery life for mobile computing devices such as the lightest notebook PCs and Internet-linked appliances.

If Transmeta Corp.'s claims prove true and the company can land major PCmakers as customers -- big ifs -- it eventually could wield substantial influence in the Internet industry.

"Is this going to change the world tomorrow? No. But they definitely have some revolutionary technology that will have an impact" on mobile devices, said Linley Gwennap, analyst of the Linley Group in Mountain View, Calif.

Transmeta has generated substantial buzz in high-tech circles, partly for having been highly secretive about its work since its founding in 1995, partly for its high-profile investors who include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and global financier George Soros.

The privately held 200-person company in Santa Clara, Calif., boasts some highly respected technologists, including chief executive David Ditzel, a chip pioneer formerly with Sun Microsystems, and programmer Linus Torvalds, author and namesake of the Linux operating system.

Industry observers were impressed with Transmeta's expertise, but noted that the company faces powerful and larger competitors and has yet to prove its technology with successful products.

Ditzel said that the first members of Transmeta's chip family -- dubbed "Crusoe" after the fictional shipwrecked adventurer -- solves a fundamental problem in an increasingly mobile, Web-connected era: Microprocessors have become too complex, consume too much power and give off too much heat.

"The complexity of these chips was going out of control," Ditzel said, which led to a multitude of bugs and runaway manufacturing costs. Crusoe uses a process called "code morphing" to run applications designed for standard chips. This software technique simplifies the processing of standard Windows applications to operate effectively on Transmeta's smaller, cooler, less power-hungry chips.

Transmeta has contracted with IBM to manufacture the Crusoe processors -- a service Big Blue provides for other chip-design companies that lack their own fabrication plants.

The fastest version of the Crusoe for notebook PCs will run at 700 megahertz and sell to PC manufacturers for $329, the company said. By comparison, Intel's 650 megahertz processor, also unveiled last week, sells for $637. The speed rating does not mean that the Crusoe is faster than the Pentium III; it runs Windows applications slightly more slowly, but close enough to seem equivalent to users, Ditzel said.

The Transmeta product uses only 1 watt of power, compared with about 5 watts for the Intel chip.

Some 20-million notebooks are sold annually, less than 20 percent of all PCs, Mercury Research in Scottsdale, Ariz., says. But notebooks are the fastest growing segment of the PC market. Analysts said Transmeta could be highly successful if it can supply chips for as few as 10 percent of the notebook PC market.

Ultimately, Transmeta's business will depend on the success of the fledgling market for Internet-connected handheld computers.

Products using another version of the Crusoe, such as small Web pads for wireless browsing based on the Linux operating system, should be available in the spring.

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