Transmeta: Time for PCs to get personal

The chipmaker is helping manufacturers create "ultra-personal computers," a new category of tiny PCs for businesses.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
Chipmaker Transmeta is helping manufacturers create a new category of PCs for businesses--and this time it's personal.

Transmeta on Thursday said its chips are being used in the development of tiny computers called ultrapersonal computers, or UPCs. The chipmaker is helping to bring the gadgets into the market as an alternative to handhelds and traditional 5-pound or 6-pound notebook PCs for businesses. The new computers, some of which are available now, are expected to gain in popularity this year, the company said.

"Not only are more and more companies designing new innovative ways to use our processors in ultra-personal computers, but additional companies are offering support in software, hardware and peripherals for the UPC segment," Transmeta CEO Matthew Perry said in a statement.

UPCs, which are being developed by start-ups such as Antelope Technologies and Oqo, in some ways emulate a notebook PC. The machines run Microsoft's Windows XP operating system and all the software that goes with it, but are much smaller--about the size of a handheld device, weighing ounces, not pounds, Transmeta said.

Oqo's ultra-personal computer, which incorporates a 1GHz-Transmeta processor, resembles a PDA (personal digital assistant) in size. It has a 5-inch screen, measures 4 inches by 3 inches, and is just under an inch thick, according to Oqo's Web site. The screen slides upward to reveal a small keyboard.

Oqo said Thursday that it will begin selling the device in the second half of 2004. The company, which was started in April 2002, originally hoped to begin selling the gadget in the second half of 2002.

Meanwhile, Antelope's Mobile Computer Core (MCC) went on sale in late 2003 as part of a $3,970 kit. The machine uses a PDA-size computer module that plugs into a number of different chassis, including a handheld with a 6.3-inch touch screen. The module contains a 1GHz Transmeta chip, hard drive, memory and other components and can work with a desktop docking station.

Transmeta said the emergence of UPCs is made possible by the low power consumption and reduced heat dissipation characteristic of its chips. Selecting a chip that consumes relatively small amounts of power and produces little heat allows a manufacture to create a computer that is much smaller and lighter, in part, because it can operate using a small battery and doesn't need equipment such as a fan. The emergence of miniature hard drives from companies such as Toshiba also has helped shrink the size of computers.

Chipmakers say what separates a UPC from a PDA is the ability to run a full-size copy of Windows XP and other applications on a handheld PC with wireless networking capabilities. That could appeal to companies with employees who work outside the office or company executives who spend much of their time in meetings.

Employees could use standard software to send and receive documents and e-mail, and the company's IT staff wouldn't be required to support another operating system and set of applications. When in the office, employees could slip their UPCs into a docking station and use them with a standard desktop monitor.

"With the growing list of companies supporting the UPC category, we see the potential for a revolution to take place in the computer industry," Transmeta's Perry said.

Hurdles ahead
Despite the seemingly pragmatic design of UPCs, getting businesses to buy them is likely to be difficult. Even though many companies continue to replace desktops with notebooks, smaller devices such as the latest version of the tablet PC, which offers a version of Windows XP that can be operated with a pen and can connect to a wireless network, haven't fared well.

Part of the problem may be the price. Companies have traditionally stuck to larger notebooks that weigh between 5 pounds and 8 pounds. These machines have fallen in price, costing little more than a desktop paired with a flat-panel display.

Shipments of tablet PCs are expected to total about 500,000 units in 2003, a fraction of the tens of millions of notebooks likely to be shipped worldwide, according to research firm IDC. Smaller notebook PCs, called ultraportables, which usually weigh less than 4 pounds, also make up a minor portion of shipments.

"The traditional one-spindle ultraportable has never comprised more than 10 percent of the market," said Alan Promisel, an analyst with IDC.

UPC makers will face "an extremely crowded market (with a number of companies) vying for the mobile professional," Promisel said. "It's a crowded field going for that 5 (percent) or 10 percent."