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Transmeta notebooks on fast track to U.S.

Notebooks with Transmeta's power-saving Crusoe processor will hit the United States this spring, including one that includes both Windows and Linux.

A slew of notebooks that incorporate Transmeta's Crusoe processor will hit the United States over the next two months, including one that includes both a Windows operating system and a version of Linux.

This spring, Casio will release its Crusoe-based Fiva notebook in the United States, according to the company. Among other features, the Fiva runs on Windows 2000 but also comes with version of Linux that lets consumers skirt the Windows boot-up when it comes to certain applications.

NEC, meanwhile, will come out with a budget-priced Crusoe notebook and a fancier version containing space-saving lithium-polymer batteries, according to sources close to the company. Others manufacturers are also expected to begin releasing Transmeta notebooks in North America, sources said.

Along with potentially expanding Crusoe's presence in the United States, the new machines exemplify major currents in Transmeta's overall strategy. For one, Transmeta and its PC manufacturers are clearly trying to occupy a high ground when it comes to design.

"Everybody has been trying to figure out how Linux is going to enter the (notebook) business," said David Ditzel, Transmeta's chief technology officer. "Rather than see a Linux machine that is separate and distinct from a Windows machine, there is going to be a possibility of a peaceful coexistence."

Second, the new machines demonstrate how the company is pushing to expand its market. To date, Sony remains the only company to bring a Transmeta notebook to the United States. In 2001, geographic diversification will be one of the key priorities, Transmeta CEO Mark Allen said earlier this week.

Targeting businesses
Allen added that Crusoe-based notebooks will increasingly be targeted at business customers and not just at the high end of the consumer market. The Crusoe consumes less power than many other notebook chips. As a result, notebooks that adopt it can have longer battery lives or be smaller.

However, energy efficiency has also led to some compromises on performance. To date, the Crusoe mostly has been used in mini-notebooks, small machines with often tiny keyboards that are not generally used as desktop substitutes.

"We want to grow in form factors," Allen said. "As the Japanese start to migrate these systems into the U.S., you are going to see corporations get pressure to buy them."

Getting into the corporate market won't be easy, though.

"The business market is pretty brand sensitive, so they are going to look for that Intel brand," said analyst Linley Gwennap of The Linley Group. He added that pressure still exists for Transmeta to snag a deal with one of the major notebook producers.

"Transmeta got off to a good start when they came out last year with the Japanese manufacturers, but I have been disappointed that they have been losing momentum," Gwennap said. "They really need to land somebody big."

Although not a major notebook name in the United States, Casio could begin to draw some attention, at least from window-shoppers, with its Fiva. The Fiva is a subnotebook that weighs just over 2 pounds, yet contains a 600MHz processor and a 20GB hard drive. More interesting, it contains the companion version of Linux.

Average consumers might eventually use the computer's Linux personality for select applications, Ditzel predicted.

Hello Kitty
"There is a little switch on the side that says A and B. When it's on A, it boots up in Windows. But when you switch it to B, it quick-boots in Linux," Ditzel said. "Suppose you just wanted to listen to some MP3 music or something, and you don't want to wait the three to four minutes for Windows."

A Casio representative said the notebook will be released in the United States within the next 60 days. A version of the Fiva is already on sale in Japan. One of the models is decorated with Hello Kitty cartoons.

Although the Casio box will be one of the first, if not the first, notebooks to straddle the Windows-Linux line in this way, other manufacturers are also accommodating Linux on laptops.

Hewlett-Packard, for instance, certifies its Omnibooks for Linux. The company doesn't sell laptops complete with Linux, but the configuration is certified to accept the OS. Linux developers already have been setting up such laptops, said Webb McKinney, vice president of the personal computing organization at HP.

"There is interest in Linux on the client side," he said while acknowledging that "the Linux developer market is not exactly a billion-dollar market."

NEC will also bring some relatively new design concepts to the market. One of the Crusoe-based notebooks will contain lithium-polymer batteries. Unlike traditional batteries, which are formed into rigid cells, lithium-polymer batteries are made out of gel. As a result, they can be shaped to fit into empty spaces and help reduce the size of handhelds and notebooks.

Notebook manufacturers touted lithium-polymer batteries about two years ago, but the first polymer batteries didn't last as long as manufacturers had hoped. And because they were about 25 percent to 30 percent more expensive than lithium-ion batteries, manufacturers were cool to the idea.

One of the first notebooks to adopt lithium-polymer batteries was Mitsubishi's Pedion in 1997. HP licensed the Pedion and re-branded it as Sojourn, which was priced at $5,799 and available for about a year.

Since then, the picture has changed. A number of companies, including Toshiba and National Semiconductor, are experimenting more with polymers. Ericsson has adopted a polymer battery in one of its cell phones.