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November 30, 2000

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AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek technology

FEBRUARY 4, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 4

The Secret of Success
A hush-hush U.S. firm shows off its new chip

There is nothing unusual about secrecy in Silicon Valley. In the cutthroat, hyperspeed world of the technology start-up employees are more likely to see an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) than an IPO. But few firms can match Transmeta for intrigue. The four-and-a-half year old start-up was known to be working on a new microchip. It was known to have hired Linus Torvalds, the geek poster boy behind the Linux operating system. Attempts to dig much deeper than that struck a seam of NDAs over two thousand-thick. Transmeta's phone number was unlisted and calls that got through went unanswered. The firm's homepage said simply: "This Web site does not yet exist."

On January 19, Transmeta finally loosened its lips, revealing Crusoe, a ground-up redesign of the microchip for the age of mobile Internet computing. By using software to take on many functions previously handled by circuitry, Transmeta claims it has created a chip that can run all day on a single battery charge. In the post-PC era, the platform of choice will be small, light and portable. Transmeta hopes it will also have Crusoe inside. "If it has a battery and a Web browser, it's going to be built with Crusoe," predicted Transmeta CEO Dave Ditzel at the chip's lavish launch.

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While traditional microprocessors are tiny, hard-wired devices that require lots of energy, Crusoe is a lean-burning chip that relies on software to do much of the work. The hardware itself handles only very simple instructions in an easy-to-understand language known as VLIW (for Very Long Instruction Word). The heavy lifting is done by a buffer of software surrounding the CPU that translates, or "morphs" the complex programming code of PC applications into VLIW and then passes them on. Because Crusoe's hardware only takes one quarter of the workload, it requires less juice than rival processors, like Intel's Pentium III, prolonging battery life.

While Intel and its rival AMD butt heads to be speed king of the desktop, Transmeta is hoping to steal a march in a market that does not yet exist. The first Crusoe chips, running at speeds of 333 and 400 megahertz, will be used to power next-generation machines like the Web Slate, an Internet access device being developed by Diamond Multimedia. The pad-like Slate has a full-color, touch-screen display, is less than three centimeters thick and weighs little over a kilogram. The Slate is that slim for a reason. The cool-running Crusoe chip doesn't need a bulky fan to prevent overheating, while a new version of the Linux operating system (the fruit of Torvalds' involvement) does away with the need for a hard drive. Mobile Linux can be held in a slab of "flash" memory similar to the storage cards used by digital cameras. With the power-hungry mechanical parts gone, Crusoe should be able to tease a full day's Net surfing from the Web Slate's batteries.

So far non-PC Net access devices have failed to catch on due to their limited number of functions. Crusoe devices will be fully PC compatible. They will support every Web browser plug-in and be able to open any e-mail attachment. The Web Slate and similar gadgets could hit the stores as early as the middle of this year, initially retailing for between $500 and $1,000.

Crusoe will also show up in notebooks. Faster versions, clocking 700 MHz, could appear in Windows-running laptops by the end of this year. Crusoe could double battery life and reduce shoulder strain while still proving a match for Pentium III systems in speed terms. "These chips have got a lot of grunt," says Joe Sweeney, Asia Pacific research director for GartnerGroup. "If they are really reaching their claims then this is great for the industry."

It's a big if. After so many years of silence, it will take more than talk to convince the skeptics that Crusoe is a revolution on a chip. Previous attempts at emulating Intel chips have proved sluggish. Transmeta has insisted on measuring Crusoe's performance on its own terms, instead of using industry-standard benchmarks. Taking on Intel will also require more than just a good product. Two days before the unveiling of Crusoe, Intel announced its own initiative to help prolong battery life. Its new SpeedStep chip ratchets down notebook performance to conserve energy when in battery mode.

Transmeta's future now depends on convincing electronics manufacturers to build Crusoe into new devices. "They've done a lot of smart PR, they've generated a lot of hype," says Sweeney. "Kudos to them, that's an essential part of the business. But they've got a lot of hills to climb." Transmeta is strapping on its boots. Crusoe is already in production at IBM's chip manufacturing facilities and CEO Ditzel claims "about a dozen" firms are working on portables incorporating the device.

Whether Transmeta ultimately succeeds or fails, it has kick-started the race to build a whole new class of computer. Intel, Motorola and other chip giants will be forced to respond with their own innovative solutions. With broadband wireless Internet access and breakthroughs in battery technology both on the horizon, the new chips should make good on the long-held promise of go-anywhere Internet access on devices that measure battery life in days instead of hours. It's no secret that that is something consumers want to see.

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