Hype, Hype - Hooray!

QUIET! WE'VE GOT A VERY BIG SECRET! SHHHH! That's the main marketing tactic for Transmeta, the star-studded startup that's generated copious buzz by loudly refusing to discuss its business plan. The rumors should end Wednesday, when the company comes out of seclusion and gives a press conference.

Here's what we do know: Transmeta was founded five years ago (or four, if you read Reuters) by David Ditzel, former chip designer at Bell Labs and Sun. The employee who has fed the hype machine the most is Linux developer Linus Torvalds. Some of the investment bucks come from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and big-time financier George Soros. They're designing a microprocessor called Crusoe, and it's not for your desktop machine. The Transmeta site's HTML source contains a comment - ZDNet's John Spooner calls it a "not-so-secret message" - stating only that "Crusoe will be cool hardware and software for mobile applications" and that we'll have to wait until Jan. 19 for anything more.

Beyond that, it's a guessing game. Anonymous sources told Reuters that Transmeta has received more than $100 million in VC funding, and that it may employ almost 200 people. San Jose Mercury News writer Tom Quinlan also talked to anonymous sources, emerging with estimates that Transmeta has just a few dozen employees but has collected several hundred million dollars - in contrast to the $20 million on public record. Quinlan also pointed out that "nobody outside actually knows for sure."

ZDNet's John Spooner said that at this point, "the easiest way to figure out what Transmeta is up to is to sift through its technology patents." Several outlets reported that Transmeta has patented code-morphing technology. The techniques could allow Crusoe to translate and use instructions from other chips (such as Intel's) or maybe applications (like Java, Windows or PostScript apps).

Wire reports helped the hype along, quoting analysts who crowed about "fundamental change" and claimed Intel "should be worried." The Merc took the half-empty angle, speaking to market researchers who wondered if Crusoe would live up to its hype. Writer Tom Quinlan registered some skepticism himself, wryly commenting on Transmeta's "very public shroud of secrecy" and its "advanced - though hardly unprecedented - design features." But Quinlan, like his interviewees, was not about to give Crusoe a thumbs-down in advance.

Mobile, non-Intel, non-Windows devices are getting big, he said, and "an inexpensive, powerful processor that can be used in a wide variety of different devices over and over again could be a hit." Could be. We'll know more tomorrow.

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