Transmeta Chip May Hold Key for Computing's Future

FRAMINGHAM (01/28/2000) - The subdued reaction of some analysts to the Transmeta chip announcement tells me that they just don't get it. A powerful microprocessor that was designed from scratch to facilitate wireless Internet access will have a big impact on the workplace.

Transmeta's target market of wireless Internet appliances and ultralight laptops isn't - as some commentators claim - simply a computing "niche." It's the market of the future, and in this arena, Transmeta's Crusoe chip is dramatically more appealing than Intel's products. Intel's mission in life is to build increasingly muscular chips through increasingly complicated hardware.

But big, power-hogging chips result in laptops that conk out after a couple of hours. Smaller chips that last longer are ridiculously weak and can only run dumbed-down versions of popular software.

In comparison, a Transmeta-based laptop will leap tall buildings. Running typical Windows software, the new chip will function on batteries for eight hours - i.e, a full workday.

In a revolutionary approach to microprocessor design, the Crusoe processor consists of a compact hardware engine surrounded by a software layer. This approach eliminates millions of transistors, replacing them with software. The Crusoe processor that was unveiled uses roughly one quarter of the logic transistors required for an all-hardware design of similar performance.

This offers benefits beyond just saving power. Since the hardware is not directly linked to software such as Windows, Transmeta's engineers can freely exploit the best hardware innovations, without forcing buyers to throw out their existing software.

Even potentially more important, the chip's software can evolve separately from hardware. Users could download updated software from the Internet to improve chip performance without buying a new PC. Think back to the buggy Pentium chip that Intel recalled at a cost of close to $500 million. With Crusoe, the problem likely could have been fixed with a simple software patch.

The upshot is that we now have powerful, energy-efficient chips that can operate all day and be easily fine-tuned to run a variety of software, be it Windows, Linux or whatever. This is remarkable. Moreover, using technologies such as the wireless Bluetooth innovation, these devices can be online constantly.

The implications go well beyond simply having laptops that will function during long flights. Office workers will be able to build their workdays around these units, carrying ultralight notebooks, Web pads or handheld devices from their desks to meetings inside and outside the office, all while being online. As companies increasingly link via the Internet with suppliers and customers to form business webs, having employees constantly networked will be essential.

Internet devices and laptops will explode in popularity if Transmeta can deliver the functionality and energy efficiency it promises.

Don Tapscott is co-author of the book Digital Capital: Harnessing the Power of Business Webs, which will be released in May. Contact him at column@tapscott.com.

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