All systems go for Transmeta

With Torvalds on board, could Transmeta hold the key to the European computer industry?

Chip-challenger Transmeta met with a bevy of British journalists on Monday when it formally introduced its technology to the European computer industry.

CEO Dave Ditzel talked up the importance of the European market, the potential of Transmeta's "revolutionary" technology and the significance of having a certain Linus Torvalds on board.

Ditzel founded Transmeta in 1995 with an impressive background in microprocesser technology. He was the director of SPARC (Scaleable Processor Architecture) labs, as well as the chief technical officer at Sun Microsystems carrying out pioneering into RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processors.

Transmeta is talking to companies specialising in European wireless technology, says Ditzel, whose chip could find itself into mobile phones where Europe is far stronger than the US. But despite his candid approach, Ditzel says it is up to the manufacturers to announce Crusoe products. "Over the next year, you will start seeing a variety of systems [using Crusoe chips]. It will be very, very exciting."

Ditzel said some products may be unveiled at CeBIT this week.

Crusoe processor technology incorporates a simple hardware architecture designed with low power consumption in mind. It also features a layer of software called Long Run, which is capable of regulating watt and voltage output according to the performance of an application.

Code Morphing -- emulation -- software enables the Crusoe to translate x86 commands for its own use. According to Transmeta, this makes Crusoe chips exceptionally power efficient and crucially able to run existing x86 code. The technology is yet to be independently tested, however.

Transmeta generated a frenzy of media interest in the countdown to it televised unveiling of the Crusoe in January. Transmeta's work remained top-secret for five years as it went about hiring some of the major hardware and software developers in Silicon Valley during that period.

Interest in Transmeta was intensified with the revelation that none other than the father of Linux, Linus Torvalds, had signed-up to work on the company's programming team. With the launch of the Crusoe technology, it was discovered that as well as working on the Code Morphing software, Torvalds programmed a new version of his operating system (called Mobile Linux) to run on Crusoe-based devices.

Ditzel admits that getting Torvalds on board was a boost, but says there is no favouritism. "It doesn't hurt," he says. "But he is one of our primary [code morphing] programming staff. Mobile Linux generated more interest than we expected, but programming it took up about one percent of his time. I can't say who our top programmers are. It's a bit like saying which of your children is the smartest."

Mobile Linux is exactly the same as standard Linux but for four enhancements. It actively controls power usage in cooperation with Crusoe technology. It also has a compressed file system for compactness. It is stored entirely in flash memory, removing the need for a hard disk. This makes it even more streamlined. It also includes a virtual keyboard that gives users the option to type text directly on-screen.

According to Ditzel, the secrecy surrounding Transmeta was more than a marketing tool. "We're not actually a small company," he says. "We wanted our competitors to think we were maybe just a couple of guys doing something or other."

The operating system will offer the same stability and security as regular Linux, assures Ditzel, who also forecasts that the OS will become a standard among manufacturers of so-called mobile Internet appliances. No competitor is more menacing than chip-behemoth Intel, but Transmeta holds one fundamental advantage, says Ditzel. When asked whether he thinks Intel would consider lowering prices of mobile microprocessors in order to steal Transmeta's thunder, he says simply, "How much would they have to lower prices to achieve one watt? It's not like your going to see a response to this in five months. We intend to be in this market for a very long time."

Crusoe... Hype or just another wannabee? Tell the Mailroom.