Transmeta chases embedded device designs

Transmeta is making progress in securing design wins within embedded systems with its announcement Tuesday of support for its Crusoe processors from Plexus, but the company has a long way to go to win more attention from embedded developers, analysts said.

Transmeta's Crusoe processor was designed as a low-power notebook and mobile device processor. The company hasn't acquired as much market share in the U.S. as it would have hoped, but is popular in Japan in notebooks by Fujitsu and Sony, among others.

The company has turned to the embedded market in hopes of making the company profitable. Embedded devices are computers designed for a specific use, such as a controller for a robot assembler at an automotive plant. They also include devices like cell phones and personal digital assistants.

Embedded devices need to stand up to adverse environments, and Crusoe's low-power characteristics lend the chip to these types of devices, said Mike DeNeffe, director of marketing for Transmeta.

Plexus designs and builds specialized industrial equipment for vertical markets such as automotive manufacturing or health care. The announcement builds on earlier agreements with three embedded design companies in Europe to use Transmeta's Crusoe SE (special embedded) processors in their products, DeNeffe said.

However, embedded device specifications are often determined by software developers, who prefer FPGA (field-programmable gate array) chips to those based on fixed designs, said Jerry Krasner, vice president of market intelligence for Embedded Market Forecasters. Embedded Market Forecasters regularly surveys embedded developers about the types of designs they are considering and using in their devices, and Transmeta's name does not come up very often, he said.

Developers of industrial products can match FPGA processors to their software requirements, rather than having to build their software around the instruction set of the Crusoe processor. This will make it hard for Transmeta to convince developers to adopt their chip, Krasner said.

But developers of other embedded devices such as thin clients find the Crusoe processor a welcome change from other slower embedded designs, said Bob O'Donnell, director, personal technology for IDC. Hewlett-Packard recently announced a thin client device with the Crusoe processor, and Transmeta was named a partner for Microsoft's Smart Display initiative, he said.

"The things that did not serve them well in the PC market are totally different here. They go from the bottom of the performance barrel in PCs to the top in the embedded market," he said.

Transmeta clearly must do something to remain relevant in the chip world. Its highest profile employee, Linux creator Linus Torvalds, left Transmeta last week to accept a full-time position with the Open Source Development Lab. And Intel's Pentium M processor has drawn favorable reviews from analysts and hardware enthusiast sites for its combination of performance and low power.

Intel executives have admitted that Transmeta's Crusoe was a wake-up call that lead to the creation of the Pentium M, but Transmeta must find something to generate revenue, not just admiration and respect. The company plans to launch its next-generation Crusoe chip, code-named Astro, in the third quarter, DeNeffe said. Transmeta expects Astro to compete with the Pentium M in terms of performance and power consumption, executives have said.

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