Transmeta climbs into embedded market

Transmeta is set to release its first line of chips for cash registers, industrial equipment and other embedded applications in an attempt to diversify its business.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
Transmeta on Monday will release its first line of chips for cash registers, industrial equipment and other embedded applications in an attempt to diversify its business.

The Crusoe SE processors are similar to the company's notebook chips but will be incorporated into a wider variety of nontraditional devices, such as point-of-display terminals or in-car entertainment systems. Embedded chips typically perform a limited number of functions and run only a few software applications, but must be far more resistant to breakdowns and environmental hazards, such as dust, than PC chips.

The Transmeta chips fill a niche between products from ARM and MIPS, which are fairly popular in the embedded world, and processors from Intel and AMD, said Tom Lee, director of embedded business development at Transmeta.

The Crusoe SE line runs at 667MHz to 933MHz, faster than most ARM chips, but consume less power than competing Intel and AMD chips, thereby eliminating the need for internal cooling fans.

"The last thing you want is a fan. Reliability is king in this market," Lee said. "What you want is something that won't break down from grease being sucked into the French fry machine."

The chips also can run Windows and Linux software, he noted.

After a glamorous start, Transmeta has been trying to recover from a disastrous slide in 2001. The company's Crusoe 5800 chip was delayed several times that year, prompting Toshiba to cancel a Transmeta-based notebook for the U.S. market. Revenue fell to below $2 million a quarter, forcing the company to replace CEOs and lay off employees.

Although Transmeta continues to lose money, it managed to get the 5800 out the door in 2002 and is currently working on a new chip, called the Astro, which will debut later this year. Revenue also has risen lately.

The embedded market differs substantially from the PC market. Embedded chips typically sell for less than their PC counterparts and companies often need fewer chips. On the plus side, there are far more potential customers, Lee said.

Contracts also can run for far longer. Notebook manufacturers refresh their product lines every six months, requiring chipmakers to continually pursue new agreements. By contrast, a cash register manufacturer might sell the same model for several years, effectively guaranteeing a revenue stream to companies that supply its components.

To that end, Transmeta says it will promise to sell the same chips for five years, so that manufacturers won't have to worry about redesigning their systems or boards, said Lee.

The company will initially make six Crusoe SE chips. The chips will run at 667MHz, 800MHz and 933MHz. At each speed grade there will be a regular and low-power model, Lee said.