Commentary: Transmeta chips interesting but risky for corporate users

Companies should adopt a wait-and-see attitude concerning Transmeta and any other chips that are not native x86 compatible, according to Meta Group.

2 min read

Transmeta, whose $234 million IPO is stimulating strong investor interest this week, is focused on creating low-power processors that originally promised huge reductions in power consumption for laptops. In recent months, however, Transmeta has been scaling back those expectations.

A week ago, IBM canceled its project to build Transmeta-powered notebooks, partly because it would not get the battery-life benefits it originally expected.

Battery consumption is a product of the entire system, not just the processor. Once you add the disk, display, modem cards and other components, the power savings from a low-power chip alone may not be so great.

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Transmeta surpasses estimates with $273 million IPO
More importantly, the Transmeta processor relies on emulation for the Intel x86 compatibility that is necessary to run standard Windows applications. This approach faces two problems.

First, any emulation system requires extra CPU cycles to run. Second, it means that Transmeta cannot absolutely guarantee that every Windows program will run on its emulation, and even if it does, the company cannot guarantee the speed of each application.

One application may run well, but another may run very slowly, and a third may not run at all over an emulation package.

Sony does have a laptop that runs on the Transmeta processor. Meta Group has not yet evaluated this product, but early press reviews report that performance is poor.

The Transmeta chip will probably work well in native mode, running Linux or an operating system built around the chip. With its focus on low power consumption, it probably has a future in pervasive and embedded devices that can run applications and operating systems built around the chip.

Whether that will be enough to sustain Transmeta as a company in the long term, particularly given the promises that its executives have made about capturing a large portion of the laptop market, remains to be seen.

Companies should adopt a wait-and-see attitude concerning Transmeta and any other chips that are not native x86 compatible. Companies want to replicate a standard corporate image on each machine, and they cannot be sure that all the applications in that image will run well on a system that depends on emulation.

In coming months, Transmeta systems will undergo detailed performance benchmark testing by neutral parties. Companies certainly should not consider Transmeta laptops until they see the results of those studies.

Instead, companies should stick with "Intel Inside" or at most consider AMD or Intel's Celeron--both of which are x86-architecture processors. Meta Group believes that Intel will deliver a low-power chip that matches Transmeta's power curve within 18 months.

Corporate buyers will not gain that much by going with a nonstandard processor, regardless of the emulation technology, and they always take a risk that some vital piece of corporate software will not run on it. Intel remains the safest bet in the industry today.

Meta Group analysts Peter Burris, Jack Gold and William Zachmann contributed to this article.

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