NEW YORK-- Transmeta Corp. will go to Comdex in Las Vegas later this month flush with an impressive series of design wins. The company is also poised to pile up a huge war chest of cash, because its initial public offering (IPO) of stock is expected to hit the market on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the company was buffeted this past week by reports stating that IBM Corp. was pulling the plug on plans to use Transmeta's Crusoe processors in its Thinkpad notebook computers.
That's not the case, according to an IBM spokesman. "The Thinkpad 240 a prototype model with a Crusoe chip is the only one we put on hold," he said. "We're not ruling out Transmeta for future use. We're continuing to evaluate them, along with Intel and AMD processors." IBM's most recent Thinkpad, the model X20, uses an Intel mobile Celeron processor.
Sources close to IBM said one of its key engineering requirements was to extend battery life.
Given the widespread media play of the IBM story, insiders believe that Transmeta will have to run the tough stock market gauntlet many technology startups have had to go through in recent months. For this reason, those same insiders believe the IPO will be subject to rigorous scrutiny by potential buyers.
On the technical front, IBM does have some research technology up its sleeve that could mean potent competition for Transmeta's processors, which run the X86 instruction set. An IBM research team in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., has implemented a low-level very-long instruction word (VLIW) chip that has a relatively small number of execution units -- in this case, eight.
That low-level approach to VLIW dovetails exactly with Transmeta's philosophy. IBM also has VLIW software translator technology called Daisy. Although Daisy was originally designed for use with Java and PowerPC code, presumably IBM would have no trouble revising it to handle X86 instructions.
Silence is golden
Transmeta officials would not comment on this week's developments because the company is in its quiet period--the time prior to a stock offering when it is prohibited by the government from publicly discussing anything of real significance.
Transmeta introduced two Crusoe families of VLIW-like embedded processors back in January. At the time, they were praised by supporters, but others remained skeptical. During the spring and summer, not much was heard from the company.
Now, however, the combination of design wins and an imminent influx of cash is turning the spotlight on Transmeta once again.
Sony Corp. appears to have taken the highest profile as far as Transmeta's design wins are concerned. The company has fielded a new 2.2-pound Vaio notebook computer equipped with Transmeta's TM5600 Crusoe processor. The TM5600 appears to be a new part; it was not announced in January.
Back then, Transmeta unveiled the TM5400, aimed at notebooks and subnotebooks, and the less powerful TM3120, targeted at Internet appliances.
According to sources, the TM5600 is a 5400 with twice the amount of L2 cache. The 5400 has 256k of L2 cache, and the 5600 is fitted with 512k of L2 cache.
Interestingly, Sony already has an unknown financial stake in Transmeta, having participated in a round of financing this past April. At that time Transmeta received a combined total of $88 million from America Online, Compaq, Gateway, Phoenix Technologies and Samsung, among others.
Other investors in the company include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Three on a match
The other downsized computers due to be on display at Comdex will come from Hitachi, Fujitsu and NEC.
Hitachi is releasing three separate models, offered with various combinations of 10.4-inch and 12.1-inch thin-film transistor displays and either 533-MHz TM5400 or 600-MHz TM5600 processors. Hitachi claims battery life of up to 10 hours for the machines, depending on the application.
For its part, Fujitsu has dubbed its Transmeta-based offering the FM Biblo Loox T. It weighs under 2.2 pounds, has full Internet and Windows capabilities and a form factor of approximately 10 x 7 x 1.2 inches.
Perhaps the most interesting design that will make use of Crusoe will come from the combined team of America Online and Gateway. The two companies are reportedly working on an Internet appliance device that would use the Crusoe 3120 processor.
Toshiba also retains rights to field Crusoe-based computers.
As for Transmeta's software, the linchpin of its technology is its "code-morphing software" (CMS), which automatically translates X86 applications into native code that runs on Crusoe. For that reason, Transmeta has touted Crusoe as a chip for which programmers need only know how to write standard X86 applications. Transmeta's CMS is supposed to perform all other software translation and optimization.
According to Transmeta's engineers, CMS is burned into Crusoe's ROM in compressed form, just as with a Huffman algorithm. Once the processor is powered up, Crusoe extracts the decompression algorithm and then decompresses the entire CMS into its own local memory. At that point, once it decompresses itself into its entire own local memory, it then converts the first batch of X86 code, beginning from the reset vector. For that reason, Crusoe appears to a programmer to function just like an X86 machine.
Transmeta's IPO is being managed by a group of investment banks that includes Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, Salomon Smith Barney, Banc of America Securities LLC and SG Cowen. Transmeta said it will use the money for working capital.