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VNU Net: Will Crusoe remain on a desert island?

Jul 05, 2000, 18:26 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Jo Ticehurst)

By Jo Ticehurst, VNU Net

Last week's PC Expo show in New York saw a string of computer giants parading prototype machines based on US startup Transmeta's low-power Crusoe processor.

Despite the apparent support, however, it is still unclear whether the chip's promise will translate into commercial sales and give the company a place in the highly competitive processor market already dominated by the likes of Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

The Crusoe chip was launched earlier this year amid claims that it would reduce the cost and power consumption of mobile devices.

Transmeta, which boasts such developers on its payroll as Linux operating system creator Linus Torvalds, based the Crusoe family of processors on a new approach to chip design. It used VLIW (very long instruction word) code morphing software to undertake many processor functions that had traditionally been done using silicon.

This enabled the supplier to make its chip smaller, thereby generating less heat and making it ideal for use in laptops.

Transmeta claims that, when running, the Crusoe chip generates around one watt of power, compared to an Intel Pentium's 15 to 20 watts. This means it uses significantly less battery power, and enables lightweight notebooks to work for up to eight hours. In standby mode, Crusoe generates about 20 milliwatts of power.

Ahead in the long run
The company's LongRun power management technology also enables the chip to optimise itself for processing the application that is running at the time, continually adjusting its speed and voltage to provide maximum battery life.

Because Crusoe is compatible with x86 Intel chips, it can run most PC operating systems and applications that are available today.

At PC Expo, four PC manufacturers demonstrated Crusoe-based 'ultralight' notebooks. Fujitsu, Hitachi, IBM and NEC all said it would be possible to start shipping products based on the offering by the fourth quarter of this year.

Gateway has also said it will use the firm's processors to power the forthcoming line of internet appliances that it is developing with online service provider, America Online.

But in a teleconference last week, IBM executives were quick to point out that the launch of a notebook based on Crusoe was only a possibility and not a definite plan.

Leo Suarez, IBM's programme director for worldwide marketing, said: "At PC Expo, we demonstrated a Thinkpad 240 in which we had replaced the Intel motherboard with one from Transmeta. We are not formally announcing a Thinkpad with a Transmeta chip, but the capability to do so in the autumn."

He explained that the chip addresses two of the biggest frustrations currently suffered by mobile device users: battery life and weight.

"Our engineering team will be validating that we can bring to market this type of machine," said Suarez. "We need to do some tuning of the power management circuitry, and talk to our customers to gauge their interest. It's not clear at the moment how it compares in the minds of our customers. Based on a successful engineering design and positive feedback, we will be willing and ready to introduce a Transmeta mini-notebook in the fall."

Such a laptop would be targeted at business users and small companies looking for "leading edge" products, he added.

Customer interest
Big Blue said it also planned to talk to its large enterprise customers about pilot testing the notebook to enable them to judge for themselves whether it would be of benefit or not.

"If they show interest, we would then follow up with additional Thinkpads based on the chip in the first half of next year," Suarez claimed.

He added that, if delivered, the notebooks will run Windows 2000 and will not affect the company's relationship with other chip manufacturers such as Intel. Pricing will also be "comparable" to IBM's current Thinkpad 240 range.

"What we see is a unique opportunity to change the computer experience, so if any other chip manufacturer could provide the same performance we would be willing to consider it. It's not about switching vendor or strategy, but we have not seen anything close to what Transmeta can do," said Suarez.

While analysts were also impressed by Crusoe, they did not see Transmeta appealing to users outside the mini-notebook niche.

Martin Reynolds, a senior analyst at research company Gartner, said: "Crusoe's low power can effectively add 50 per cent or more to the run time of a four pound notebook. The smaller the notebook gets, the smaller the battery gets and the more valuable the effects of Crusoe will be."

"Crusoe is a totally novel approach to x86 computing and can deliver significant power advantages over Intel's products. Its characteristics, applied carefully, can deliver unusually competitive products in the small notebook and multimedia notebook class," he added.

Industry support
IDC analyst Andy Brown agreed, but said that the chip needed to obtain further industry backing to be really successful.

"It's also got to be adopted by the industry. It needs some of the big names in the mini-notebook market behind it for success, like Sony, Toshiba and Sharp. Companies showing potential products is not the same as saying they are bringing out definite products," he said.

Brown added that other vendors were likely to wait and see how IBM's plans worked out before agreeing to include the processor in future product lines of their own. "It has enormous potential and there have been a lot of demos, which is good PR on IBM's part. It shows it is using leading edge technology and is willing to take on new companies," he said.

But he warned it was unlikely that Intel would allow Transmeta to steal a march on it in the notebook arena. "Intel won't make the same mistake it made with AMD's K6-2. It took its time to react with Celeron, and AMD managed to push its chip in the low-end processor market," he said.

"Crusoe has some powerful savings, but Intel has recently announced its Speedstep technology which enables lower clock speeds and lower wattage. Surely what Transmeta is doing is not radically different to that? It will all depend on pricing. All Intel has to do is cut its prices dramatically to squeeze Transmeta out of the market," he added.

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