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STOP THE PRESSES: Cool Chips for a Hot Category

After four and a half years, Transmeta has lifted its veil of secrecy and spilled the beans—or rather the chips. There are two, both built to run x86 code at high clock speeds while delivering unprecedented battery mileage. The larger of the two (TM5400) is targeted to the notebook and sub-notebook Windows laptop market. The smaller one (TM3120) is targeted to the new Mobile Internet Appliance market.

According to Transmeta, that market wants three things: real web browsing, real portability and long battery life. The market, they say, demands Linux, and they are more than equipped to give it to them. “We have a certain amount of expertise with the Linux OS,” says Transmeta co-founder and Chairman David Ditzel. Transmeta is famous as the employer of Linus Torvalds. Mobile Linux is a native x86 version small enough to fit into ROM with enough room left for a browser and other software components. Mobile Linux runs on the smaller and cooler of the two chips, and the system is upgradable.

The figure demonstrates that an Intel and a Transmeta chip are as different as a stove and an ice cube—between 105.5 and 48.2 degrees Celsius. LongRun technology on the TMS400 even regulates clock frequency and voltage to correspond exactly to the demands of the application, drastically conserving energy and further reducing heat load.

Ditzel, one of the originators of the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) concept and the leader for many years of Sun's SPARC effort, co-founded Transmeta to tackle the challenges of mobile computing. What Transmeta finally delivered not only meets that challenge, but achieves some RISC ideals as well.

In effect, Transmeta designed a whole new breed of microprocessor—one idealized for mobile computing. The Transmeta architecture is utterly unlike anything coming out of Intel or its standard competitors. At its core is a powerful VLIW (very long instruction word) engine, surrounded by a “code morphing” software layer that translates x86 instructions and intelligently caches them while observing the needs of the system's applications, so the chip optimizes execution of translated instructions at extremely high speeds. By replacing millions of transistors with software, the Transmeta chip is small, fast, efficient and extremely undemanding in the way it consumes electricity.

The result is a breakthrough into territory that has remained closed in the absence of designs featuring the kind of long battery life that customers now expect of portable radios, telephones and other popular hand-held devices—the Mobile Internet Computing market.

The big question is: will the market buy it? Linley Gwennap, a microprocessor analyst with The Linley Group, thinks chances are good:

The fundamental problem is the simple fact that microprocessors are consuming more and more power every generation. And Dave Ditzel is right: we're headed for a hundred watt chip on the desktop. So this isn't a problem in the mobile area. This kind of technology, which gets away from the complexities of doing everything in the chip, and shifting more of it into software, makes a lot of sense. It solves a lot of big problems.

Note: More Transmeta articles can be found on our web site at http://www.linuxjournal.com/articles/misc/013.html and ~/articles/business/030.html and an interview with Linus at ~/articles/conversations/012.html.


During the month of December (and the start of January), people were talking about:

  • SuSE's debut of the beta version of its 6.3 Linux distribution for the Macintosh at MacWorld Expo in January. The finished release is expected to ship this spring and will be identical to the SuSE we know and love.

  • Apple's release of its newest operating system, Mac OS X, later this summer. The kernel, code name Darwin, is said to be “Linux-like, featuring the same FreeBSD UNIX support and open-source model”. We shall see! (from PRNewsWire, January 5, 2000)

  • Macromedia's announcement that it will be releasing its Flash Player Source Code SDK & Flash File Format (SWF) SDK in mid-January. (Linux Today, January 6, 2000)

  • Gillian Bonner's (Playboy's Miss April 1996) posting a positively glowing review of Linux (Red Hat and Corel) in which she predicts “that very soon the Linux OS will dramatically change the operating system...and thus the way we work and play on our computers.” (Linux Today, January 5, 2000)

  • Intel Corporation's announcement that it is developing a family of Intel-branded, Linux-based web appliances expected to debut later this year. The first category of Intel appliances will combine phone and web services, which will not run on Windows!

  • The Chinese government's potential ban on governmental use of Windows 2000, as they move toward open-source technology with development of Red Flag Linux! (The Register, January 6, 2000)

  • RHAT becoming quite chummy with Salon.com, who will provide “award-winning journalism” for Red Hat's Wide Open News web site. Hmmm...didn't Microsoft do something similar with Slate? (Linux Today, January 06, 2000) —Jason Schumaker

Rumor: Top geeks at Red Hat, Inc. are seriously considering dropping the well recognized brand name in favor of its NASDAQ ticker symbol (RHAT). The change is expected to help push RHAT's new product line: stocks!

Factoid: VA Linux millionaire Larry Augustin tabbed Office, not Windows, as Microsoft's real killer asset. (Linux Today, January, 5,2000)

Factoid: The revolution begins another year. With it comes a new title for the Linux faithful: Penguinistas. Xavier Basora coined the term and to that we say, Viva la Penguinistas!

Quote: Every morning when I wake up, I try to remember who I am and where I come from. —Harry S. Truman (The Cluetrain Manifesto)

Factoid: An oil slick near Phillip Island has endangered nearby penguins. Any support would be appreciated (http://www.penguins.org.au/). For off-line donations please send to Phillip Island Nature Park, att: Penguin Hospital Support Fund, P.O. Box 97 Cowes, Phillip Island, Victoria, 3922, AUSTRALIA.