For most of its five-year existence, Transmeta has resembled a secretive cult more than a technology company. Until this year, contact with the outside world was limited to a website (www.transmeta.com) that said "This website is not here yet" and contained in the source code the message "There are no secret messages in the source code to this Web page." Enigmatic, it seemed was something of an understatement.
On 19 January this year the company broke its silence and announced products. The four Crusoe processors, looked like they'd been worth the wait. Two were designed for internet appliances, an emerging market still very much up for grabs. Analysts at IDC predict that the size of the internet appliance market could be as large as 89 million units by 2004. If even a small proportion were Transmeta based, that's a lot of chips.
The other two were designed for notebooks. What made these impressive was LongRun technology which allows the processor to adjust its clock speed and hence its power consumption. By doing this, the company claimed, they could get 8.9 hours of battery life out of a single charge - more than double the best alternatives. Transmeta looked like it had found the holy grail of notebook computing.
Since then the company has received a lot of favourable coverage from a press that conventionally dislikes Intel. There was talk of deals with notebook manufacturers, funding and imminent products. On 30 May, Transmeta announced a deal with AOL and Gateway to supply the chips for a range of internet appliances. As AOL has 20 million consumers in the US alone, this was an important win. More recently, at PC Expo in New York, major notebook vendors IBM, Fujitsu, NEC and Hitachi have all shown laptops running the Crusoe processor.
So is this the birth of a new player in the mobile market that will eclipse AMD and Intel? Probably not. The company is still loath to talk to press and analysts, leaving a lot of questions unanswered.
The benchmarks supposedly demonstrating the elongated battery life have never been independently proved. Transmeta has called for new benchmarking standards. So what is it about current benchmarks (like Worldbench 2000) that it doesn't like? And AMD recently launched the K6-2+ with Powernow technology which works like LongRun. But AMD claims an average battery life of only four hours. Hmmm.
"I'd like to see more evidence. It all sounds to good to be true," says Andy Brown, analyst at IDC.
The notebooks shown at PC Expo were only proof of concept and only Gateway has said it will build a Crusoe-based notebook.
But it's not all gloom. Fujitsu recently announced it will produce a motherboard for Crusoe chips. And Taiwanese company Quanta committed to making Transmeta-based notebooks. Quanta might not be a household name, but it makes nearly half the notebooks sold worldwide, mostly with other vendor's badges on, so its support raises the possibility of Transmeta notebooks from a variety of manufacturers. But until these products are benchmarked, Transmeta's claims can't be proven.