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Transmeta touts the ultra personal computer

Let a 100 form factors bloom

The PC market is fragmenting as it matures with new form factors such Tablet PCs and ultra personal computers set to change the user computing experience.

That's the message from Matthew Perry, Transmeta's recently-appointed chief executive, who visited London today to deliver a update on the company.

It's been a tough year for the low-power CPU designer -in July it announced a 40 per cent reduction in staff, taking headcount down from 500 to 300. The restructuring came on the back Q2 loss of $35.6m (Q1 - $30.9m) on increased revenues of $7.5m (Q1 - $4.1m). The company has pegged back expectations for reaching profitability until Q4 2003.

Even so, Transmeta says it's well positioned to exploit the push for mobility. This will see wireless networking increase in importance and growth of ultra portables to hover above 20 per cent in Western Europe (according to IDC) even as desktop sales remain flat.

This is growth from a low base, of course, but Transmeta reckons it has the technology to help build sales of Tablet PCs and ultra personal computers.

An what's an ultra personal computer anyway? Transmeta defines this beastie as a single computer which acts as a notebook, PDA, wireless communicator and MP3 device. Most importantly it can fit into the palm of your hand and, the idea goes, plug it into a specially-designed notebook shell or connect it to a desktop PC via a more traditional cradle docking setup.

Early examples of the device, from OQO and Antelope Technologies, powered by Transmeta's low power Crusoe TM5800 chips, start shipping next year with a target price of €1,000. These devices will run XP, so you gain local access to data, applications and music files but lose out against a pure-PDA by having to wait for the thing to boot before you can gain access to contact information.

For corporates an ultra personal computer offers the potential to replace a PDA and laptop with one device and reduce supports costs by reducing the number of operating systems and applications an enterprise needs to support, according to Perry. The ultra personal computer concept is proving popular with Taiwanese notebook makers, he says.

Transmeta is also on board to back Microsoft's Tablet PC marketing push (mainly through a design win with HP for a Tablet PC running XP). It also aims to extend Crusoe into embedded markets, largely through its recently announced adoption of CE.Net.

The logic of this move, when many are leaving the CE.Net market, foxed us when it was first announced.

By way of explanation Perry says that its all about delivering multimedia to devices like cell-phones and Pocket PCs, which ARM chips aren't really equipped to do since they "run out of gas".

Phwarr, Batman

Add those devices to ultra portables and Tablet PCs and you see a multiplicity of different form factor devices addressing user mobility.

Transmeta reckons the market can support this, although it concedes that Tablet PCs and ultra personal computers are in competition (and hints that ultra personals will be the bigger sellers). It's just a sign that the PC market, like the car market before it, is reaching maturity.

So is Transmeta addressing the PC equivalent of the sports car, corporate fleet or family run-around market, we asked. Perry side-stepped that one.

"You can think of Transmeta as the Bat-Mobile of the PC world," he said.

Crusoe roadmap

Next year will see the introduction of its next processor, the TM8000, made by TSMC using a 0.13 micron process and featuring a 256-bit Very Long Instruction Word (WLIW) arcchitecture. The clock speed is not announced yet, but we can safely assume that it will run faster than today's TM5800 which is designed to run between 800MHz and 1GHz.

Like all Crusoe processor, the TM5800 uses Code Morphing Software to translate x86 instructions into optimised VLIW, in its case 128-bit, commands. Moving to a 256-bit instruction set means a processor can do twice as much work per MHz.

By using software-based microprocessors, Transmeta is able to limit the power devices consume and extend battery life, an idea it wants to extend with the TM8000.

Intel recently increased the competitive threat to Transmeta with its fortchoming low-power Banias mobile CPU.

Banias is a "good attempt" at creating an lower powered processor by Intel but optimising for long battery life requires thinking about the fundamentally different architecture than Intel has adopted, driven as it is by the need for speed, Perry argues.

Transmeta will never be a Megahertz leader just as Intel won't trounce Transmeta on battery life, he adds. ®

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