Transmeta revs up own version of Linux

The start-up, which plans to take on Intel with a new chip for mobile devices, has big plans for the Linux operating system as well.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors | Semiconductors | Web browsers | Quantum computing | Supercomputers | AI | 3D printing | Drones | Computer science | Physics | Programming | Materials science | USB | UWB | Android | Digital photography | Science Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
5 min read
SARATOGA, Calif.--Start-up Transmeta, which plans to take on Intel with a new chip for mobile devices, has big plans for the Linux operating system as well.

Though Transmeta won't specifically sell a Linux product, it will give a version of the operating system called "Mobile Linux" to hardware makers so they have one to run on portable Internet access devices using Transmeta's chips, said product manager Marc Fleischmann at a conference here.

Linux, an open-source clone of the Unix operating system, competes with Microsoft Windows as well as several varieties of Unix. Linus Torvalds, the founder and leader of the Linux effort, is an employee of Transmeta, so the company's effort is sure to capture the attention of the hundreds of programmers across the world who collectively develop Linux. Torvalds crafted Linux while still a college student in Finland.

Getting Linux to work in very small devices has posed challenges because of limitations on how much memory and processing horsepower is available to manufacturers, because powerful processors usually mean batteries drain quickly. They do so because hard disks often are completely missing, and because input hardware such as keyboards and mice are hard to use if present at all. Transmeta's Linux aims to help addresses these areas.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Transmeta just yesterday came out of hiding, unveiling a combination hardware-software product that will compete with Intel chips in portable devices. Special-purpose "code-morphing" software will translate computer instructions in the language of Intel chips into the language the new Crusoe chip can understand, storing away the translated version so it can be recalled for future use. Transmeta says this method gets around the previous performance problems that have hampered such "emulation" software.

Torvalds and other Transmeta programmers have been working on several improvements to Linux for small devices, rather than competing in the growing market for server-based products.

"We're not competing against Red Hat or anything," said chief executive Dave Ditzel, referring to the leading seller of Linux. "We're helping people craft and put it together."

Many Linux improvements are under way at Transmeta. Employees have developed support for touch-sensitive screens that get around the need for a keyboard and mouse. They've written a program that draws a keyboard that can be used to type on a touch screen and that recognizes handwriting in a method similar to that used on Palm Pilots.

They also built in a way to automatically store files in a compressed form for computers with small storage space or no hard disk at all. And they've written software that will let small handheld devices run programs actually stored on powerful computers across a network.

Transmeta's improvements to Linux have been or will be released to the open-source community that collectively develops Linux. Under the terms of the General Public License that governs the heart of Linux, companies shipping products using the software must release that software for free.

Though Transmeta has embraced Microsoft Windows for use in laptops based on its new technology, the company favors a scaled-down version of Linux for use in portable Internet devices such as "Web pads." Diamond Multimedia announced just such a device today.

Microsoft has aimed for the sub-PC market with its Windows CE operating system, but Transmeta representatives pointed out that interest in that OS has been limited.

Hardware manufacturers "are telling us it's hard to find programs at all" for Windows CE, said Transmeta engineer Andrew Morgan. "Applications are not being written for Windows CE."

For laptops, Ditzel said Transmeta has been helping manufacturers with the BIOS, the critical instructions a computer uses when starting up or taking advantage of hardware features such as power management. That work is essential to get Windows computers to run.

One improvement under wraps enables such devices to run software that actually resides in compressed form on another, more powerful computer connected over a network, Morgan said. Software running on the device uses only what it needs, downloading new pieces stored on the server as it goes. The device wouldn't have to load the entire piece of software into memory, only the portions it uses.

This concept takes advantage of two pieces of software recently introduced into the development version of the Linux kernel.

But most of the Transmeta research comes at a lower level--the code-morphing software combined with a chip family called Crusoe. These chips use a technology called "very long instruction word," or VLIW, which offers a drastically smaller size but requires software to carefully prepare the instructions that are fed to the processor.

The code-morphing software translates instructions intended for an Intel chip into instructions the Crusoe chip can understand. Initially, this means slower performance, but within about a second, the translation is over and the translated code can be re-used. The method works for all types of computing tasks, said Steve Johnson, leader of the software effort at Transmeta.

The performance of the 5400 running at 667 MHz is about the same as a Pentium III running at 500 MHz, said Doug Laird, vice president of product development for Transmeta. However, Transmeta is encouraging the use of benchmarks that account for the temporary lag during the translation and for the extended battery life the chips will enable.

The fact that much of the chips' workings are in software opens up great advantages for Transmeta, company executives said.

For one thing, chips can be fixed by sending a software patch over the Internet. And upcoming improvements to the 5400's code-morphing software mean Transmeta expects a 20 percent increase in performance.

The nature of Transmeta's technology raised a security question at the conference, but company representatives denied that using software exposes the computer to greater risks from hackers who might try to take over the system from afar. The code-morphing software stores its instructions in a special patch of memory that hardware keeps separate.

"After you boot it, the gate is closed," said Bill Rozas, a member of Transmeta's technical staff.

Though there's nothing to prevent the Transmeta technology being used in high-end machines such as servers, that's not part of the current plan, executives said.

"My aspiration is not up, it's down," said engineer Malcolm Wing. He believes it's possible to build a system that consumes only 3 watts, compared to the roughly 15 watts laptops now consume.