Transmeta to unveil chip customers

IBM and NEC are expected to be among the PC makers preparing notebooks featuring the company's Crusoe processor
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

Secretive chip maker Transmeta will make a splash in the Big Apple next week, revealing the names of several PC makers who are expected to use its Crusoe TM 5400 notebook chips.

Transmeta, which is in direct competition with heavyweights Intel and Advanced Micro Devices(AMD), earlier this year unveiled its new type of PC processor to much acclaim -- but few customers.

The company hopes to remedy that at next week's PC Expo trade show in New York, where a series of manufacturers will demonstrate several notebook PCs based on the 5400 chip.

For cutting-edge consumers, Transmeta's chips and LongRun power management software hold the promise of lighter notebooks with longer-lasting batteries.

The company will trot out several notebooks at the show, including models from PC makers IBM and NEC, sources said. There it will tout the notebooks' combination of light weight -- between three and 3.5 pounds -- long battery life and multimedia performance, company officials said.

"Three to four OEMs (PC makers) will actually be there with demonstrations of Crusoe-based ultralights," said Ed McKernan, director of marketing for the company. "We believe that with Crusoe-based notebooks, (ultralight notebooks) will be adopted rather quickly and people will move away from the seven to ten pounders they carry around today."

McKernan said to watch for both one and two-spindle notebooks: machines that sport a hard drive but no other internal disk drives, and those with a hard drive and one internal disk drive, respectively. Most two-spindle notebooks will come equipped with a DVD player.

IBM will show a prototype based on its ThinkPad 240 mininotebook. The notebook, if it ships, would come out in the second half of the year.

In an interview, IBM officials seemed fairly confident that they would be able to introduce the machine, which would be in the same class as the ThinkPad 240. However, they are taking a wait-and-see attitude, they said, because testing of the Crusoe chip and LongRun software is still underway.

"What we see here is the potential to solve the two biggest frustration factors that mobile users face today," said Leo Suarez, director of worldwide product marketing for ThinkPad.

Those frustrations are weight and battery life, he said. 'Frustration studies' done by IBM have shown that users want a notebook weighing about three pounds, with eight hours or more battery life, he said.

"If we can do that, we'll bring it out in the fall," Suarez said. "We're pretty confident that we can get close to that eight-hour mark."

The sub three pound NEC notebook, to be sold first in Japan to door-to-door insurance agents, features a 5400 chip and a touch screen, sources said. It is not clear if NEC's North American or European PC divisions will offer a similar model.

There has been much speculation on which PC makers will adopt the 5400 chip.

Transmeta officials decline to comment, but point in the direction of its $88 million round of financing announced in April for likely candidates. The group of investors included Gateway, Compaq and Sony. Other notables in the financing round were Compal Electronics and Quanta Computer, which manufacture PCs for other companies.

Gateway has already inked a deal with Transmeta to use the Crusoe TM 3120 chip for Internet appliances it is developing with America Online.

Hewlett-Packard has also expressed interest in the Crusoe notebook chip.

Notebooks based on the TM 5400 chip and Microsoft's Windows operating system are expected to begin shipping in North America and Japan in the second half of the year.

Transmeta chips and software, should they stand up to the testing of companies like IBM, could usher in a group of long battery life mininotebooks. However, at the moment, mininotebooks are still less popular in North America than either Europe or Japan.

Despite lower popularity in North America, the mininotebook is not to be ignored, IBM officials said, because their data show that mininotebook sales are growing more quickly than traditional notebooks, led by buyers in Europe and Japan.

"It's not a niche part of the market that you can choose not to address," Suarez said.

While consumers' notebook purchases will likely come down to personal preferences on processor as well as price and performance factors, IBM will do its best to level the playing field. Performance and price would be the same on a Crusoe-based notebook as it will be on an Intel-based notebook, if IBM brings one out this fall, Suarez said.

Transmeta will show off more than just its notebooks at PC Expo. The company will also demonstrate a wireless home environment, filled with Internet appliances of the kind that it expects manufacturers to begin shipping early next year.

At PC Expo, Transmeta will demonstrate several uses for Internet appliances that include the wireless exchange of data, such as video sent to multiple machines simultaneously.

Transmeta will also demonstrate 'home gateways' using its processors. A home gateway serves as an access point for multiple devices using a broadband connection. These new gateways, the company says, will offer advanced features, such as the ability to cache Web sites locally.

Exactly what kind of scenario can knock Intel -- or any large company for that matter -- off track? Arguments such as those put forth by Bill Gates and Andy "Only the Paranoid Survive" Grove insist that any high-tech company can be put out of business overnight. John Dvorak thinks this is quite clearly nonsense. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

See to Chips Central for daily hardware news, including an interactive timeline of AMD and Intel's new product launches through Q1 2001.

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