The Day Ahead: Gateway: Transmeta customer now, rich shareholder later

By giving Transmeta a big dose of credibility, Gateway is boosting its chances of a big return from a Transmeta IPO
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Down with Wintel. Three cheers for Transmeta.

That was the consensus from the tech world as techies rallied around privately held Transmeta, which makes semiconductors and software that power Net appliances. Gateway said Tuesday it will use Transmeta chips in a new line of Internet appliances being developed with America Online. Gateway and AOL will also use Transmeta's Mobile Linux instead of Windows in their appliances.

Gateway and AOL are both Transmeta shareholders.

Many folks took the Transmeta deal to mean Wintel's influence was waning. It may be a case of major investors ensuring a big IPO windfall down the line.

We're not going to get into a technical discussion of Transmeta, but if you follow the money, the Gateway-AOL-Transmeta pact appears to be part of a package deal. Startups typically issue shares on the cheap so they can boast about a high-profile customer. Gateway was among the first to step up to the plate as an investor/customer.

AOL and Gateway recently helped fund a $88m (£58.89m) round of financing for Transmeta. The idea here is simple. AOL and Gateway give Transmeta some high-profile backing now and profit when the alleged Intel killer goes public.

Indeed, Gateway has a strained relationship with Intel, much to Advanced Micro Devices' gain. Intel and its shortages turned off Gateway months ago. Meanwhile, AOL wants to be the next Microsoft.

And give Transmeta some credit. Gateway said it chose Transmeta chips for several criteria: high performance; lower temperature operation, which permits smaller packaging; and its low-power requirements, which dramatically increases battery life.

We'd like to add one more: Big investment gains. By giving Transmeta a big dose of credibility, Gateway is boosting its chances of a big return from a Transmeta IPO.

ZDNet news reported that Gateway chose Transmeta over National Semiconductor's Geode, an x86-based system-on-a-chip aimed at Internet appliances. Given Gateway's investment, Transmeta probably didn't sweat much.

Here's a prediction: Transmeta will also form alliances with Compal Electronics, Compaq, First International Computer, Phoenix Technologies, Quanta Computer, Samsung and Sony. Those big guns also invested in Transmeta recently.

The deals are a nice start for Transmeta, which will inevitably go public with a lot of fanfare, but keep these alliances in perspective. Intel has squashed upstarts before. And shareholders and customers are often one in the same. Also keep in mind that high-profile investors/customers don't always translate into high-profile stock prices. Here are just a few examples of symbiotic shareholder/customer relationships:

  • ONI Systems will go public this week with a big splash. Two of its largest customers -- COLT Telecom and Internet Initiative Japan DoubleClick owns shares of ValueClick, which uses DoubleClick's ad serving technology.
  • Motorola and Nokia are shareholders in Palm. Nokia licences the Palm operating system and Motorola chips power Palm devices.
  • Vicinity is a CMGI @Ventures company. Two of the company's biggest partners are Navisite and AltaVista, both of which are in the CMGI stable.
  • And it goes on and on. These cozy shareholder/customer arrangements present a chicken and egg conundrum. Is it the technology or just the prospects of huge financial gains? Would customers be customers if they weren't also shareholders?

    In the Gateway-AOL-Transmeta deal, it's a question worth asking.

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