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Commentary: Upstart Transmeta tries to break the rules

The company is attempting to change traditional thinking about microprocessor performance, compatibility and sellers, through its Crusoe chip.

By Mark Margevicius, Gartner Analyst

Transmeta is attempting to change traditional thinking about microprocessor performance, compatibility and sellers, through Crusoe, a chip targeted at notebook and Internet appliance manufacturers.

Transmeta splits microprocessor functionality between simpler microprocessors and software through code-morphing. For example, hardware translation that simulates standard microprocessors is one such function. The result: chips are simpler, consume less power and cost less to manufacture. Crusoe even stores most commonly repeated instructions to bolster performance further.

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Transmeta running test chips in possible production expansion

Crusoe breaks some, but not all, limitations of hardware-only offerings. Crusoe shows strong potential to offer good enough performance on today's chip hardware. Equally important is Crusoe's lower power consumption, which equates to longer battery life. However, less power consumption is applicable to the processor only; other subcomponents?such as video and hard disks--are not affected.

Despite the innovation and promise, Gartner remains cautious about Crusoe. Building technology that is 100 percent compatible with current PC technology is no simple task. Transmeta says Crusoe will be compatible with applications written for the Intel platform, but that means the company will have to keep up with developments at Intel. Independent software vendors will likely push back regarding support of their products on Crusoe. Most sellers will wait for full endorsements from manufacturers and Microsoft.

Consequently, Gartner anticipates that Crusoe will go through two product cycles. Although potential for Crusoe-based Internet appliances running Linux may exist, other inhibitors, such as connectivity and bandwidth, will limit the appeal to that niche.

Transmeta is going after a growing, yet still relatively small, segment of the market: thin and light mobile devices. To succeed--or even make inroads into this Intel-dominated segment of the PC market--it will have to demonstrate technical, financial and manufacturing prowess. Although Transmeta continues to gain attention because of the differentiated value it offers, the company remains a relative unknown that has yet to demonstrate its ability to meet PC manufacturers' requirements.

(For related commentary discussing how Transmeta's Crusoe compares with Intel-based CPUs, see registration required.)

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