The mysterious Transmeta Corporation, which employs Linux ├╝ber-geek Linus Torvalds and has financial backing from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, finally unveiled its plans for a futuristic microprocessor this week. Dubbed Crusoe, the new Transmeta design employs a hardware/software architecture where many of the features that are traditionally embedded in silicon are instead relegated to software. Using a technology called code morphing, the Crusoe processors are able to emulate a variety of other microprocessor designs while making available as-yet unheard-of battery life for the portal devices for which it was designed. Transmeta hopes to usher in a new age of mobile Internet appliances with the Crusoe.

"Cellular phones became more pervasive when they were made smaller and provided greater battery life," said Dave Ditzel, CEO of Transmeta. "We believe that Crusoe will bring about a change of similar magnitude in mobile Internet computers."

The Crusoe product family consists of two chips, the TM3120 and the TM5400. The lower-end TM3120, available immediately, is designed for Linux-based "Web pads" and other mobile clients. It will run at speeds of up to 400 MHz and sell for $65 to $90 per chip. The TM5400, due this summer, is targeted at ultra-light mobile PCs running Windows 98 and Windows NT. It will run at speeds of 500 to 700 MHz while costing $120 to $330 per chip.

What sets the Crusoe apart from Intel chips, of course, is speed, size, battery life, and cost. The Crusoe chips are designed to operate on battery power for up to 36 hours, for example, providing all-day computing for mobile users. On the downside, Transmeta didn't have any PCs makers lined up to ship products based around the new architecture, though the company says several companies are looking at them closely. On Thursday, video card maker S3 announced that it would be shipping Linux-based "Internet devices" based on Transmeta's designs. Whether they can turn this into a real threat to Intel remains to be seen