The 5-year-old startup Transmeta is a recognized name in the industry, even if few people can tell you what the company does. In late 1999, Transmeta received considerable notoriety when it enticed Linux founder (and keeper of the code) Linus Torvalds to the United States as a key employee. At that time, the company's plans were shrouded in mystery and the subject of much speculation.

In January, Transmeta announced development of a new family of high-performance, low-power microprocessors that it hopes will run the next generation of handheld and laptop computers, mobile devices, and Internet terminals. The company built the chips around what experts describe as a mobile Linux kernel that enables devices to run applications on Linux and through Windows emulation.

Transmeta named the chips Crusoe (after Robinson Crusoe), which Transmeta Founder and CEO David Ditzel said "denotes mobility." A key characteristic of the new processors is that a device using a Crusoe chip can run on battery power for a full day. Transmeta claims that its design achieves power reduction because Crusoe uses fewer transistors than other processors, which lets the processors consume less wattage than Intel and AMD microprocessors.

Crusoe employs some novel technology to achieve its power-reduction characteristics. The chips use code-morphing technology to convert (through emulation) Intel x86 instructions (used in Pentium chips) into Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) instructions that Crusoe can read. Software called LongRun controls Crusoe. Ditzel said the software lets the chips constantly adjust their voltage to meet the demands of applications running on a computer or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). Additionally, LongRun incorporates much of the CPU functionality into the software, thus lowering the transistor count and letting the chip run faster. Phoenix Technologies is supplying special BIOS to make this software work properly. This hardware and software combination is how Crusoe can achieve very significant power reductions compared with current mobile processors.

Transmeta plans to ship these chips this fall. The first Crusoe chips to ship will be the 400MHz TM3120. Transmeta will sell this microprocessor in the palm-sized PDA and book-sized Internet terminal markets. Transmeta designed these chips to display complete browser content to differentiate Crusoe devices from current devices that typically display condensed browser content. The 700MHz TM5400 Transmeta chip, scheduled to run high-performance lightweight notebook or laptop computers, should appear later and should be the fastest mobile chip available upon its release. The 400MHz TM3120 chip will cost $89, and the 700MHz TM5400 chip will cost $329. Intel's 650MHz mobile laptop chip with SpeedStep costs $637, so Transmeta will enjoy a significant price differential that will make its technology attractive to OEMs.

Mobile chip technology is one of the fastest growing segments of the microprocessor market, and one in which Intel holds the largest share. According to Dataquest, about 22.2 million mobile computers shipped last year, and the CPU portion of that market is $4 billion to $5 billion. Knowing that Transmeta will compete against Intel and AMD in the marketplace, Ditzel said, "We're prepared to take on the industry." Chances are that Transmeta's success could cause Intel to lower the price of its mobile microprocessors, one of Intel's most profitable and highest-margin chip lines.

The Crusoe chip's design is complete, and James Chapman, Transmeta's vice president of sales and marketing, claimed, "This thing is ready for prime time." IBM is manufacturing the chips, and several major OEMs are evaluating the technology. The company's next big step will be to obtain major contracts from OEMs.

Transmeta's technology is impressive, and some analysts think it's a breakthrough, given the long battery life and low prices. We'll measure the company's true success when devices employing these chips ship in early 2001.