26, 2000 - In a recent interview, Transmeta Corporation CEO David Ditzel
boldly stated that his company's technology is at least five years ahead
of that of Intel and AMD, the two leading CPU vendors in the PC marketplace.
Transmeta's "Crusoe" CPU was announced in January. Among Crusoe's notable
features is its claim of super-low power consumption, resulting in much
longer battery life for notebooks and other similar battery-powered computing
devices. Current notebooks usually run out of power after 3-4 hours; Transmeta
claims Crusoe-based notebooks can run up to eight hours without recharging.
This extended life will (theoretically) allow cross-country fliers to
work (or play Quake) for the entire flight.
Although we understand Mr. Ditzel's reasoning, we think he is being a
little too optimistic, relative to the actual lead Transmeta has on everyone
else. Intel has already shipped CPUs with SpeedStep power management,
and AMD's PowerNOW! technology is being used in Compaq notebooks. Crusoe's
published specs indicate it still has a battery-life advantage over both
of those technologies, although audited comparison tests are sparse. While
we tentatively agree that it may take a new chip design for the big guys
(AMD/Intel) to emulate Transmeta's architectural philosophy (off-loading
hardware functionality onto software), we think the development time would
be closer to three years (maybe less), not five years. In the computer
biz, five years is approximately equal to "forever".
the plus side for Transmeta: we do not see them repeating the mistakes
made when the Alpha chip was first produced. Digital Equipment, which
had hoped to make Alpha a serious challenger to the Intel architecture,
neglected to get enough strategic alliances lined up early enough, resulting
in a processor with tons of power, but few applications and fewer resellers.
Transmeta has already lined up Sony, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and IBM as partners,
and we expect them to line up more in the coming months. There are other
interesting technological features in Crusoe, but it's rare that technology
alone causes a sea-change in a market like this (viz. Alpha).
longer-term problem for Transmeta will be the choice of markets: they're
presently targeting the notebook segment, but we're not sure where they'll
go beyond that. Ditzel is (presently) content to stay out of the server
and desktop market, and focus on the notebook and mobile devices. We think
Crusoe will have greater success in the notebook market - mobile devices
(Palm, Pocket PC, and the like) have a number of processors already available,
and it's unclear that the extra battery life is a big selling feature
for the smaller devices.
Until Transmeta's claims can be verified on a production-grade notebook,
potential corporate customers should watch, but not buy.
Crusoe-based notebooks demonstrate battery life on a par with their claims,
then these notebooks have the potential to be a highly valuable tool for
"road warriors" - employees usually on the road, such as salesmen.
intending to buy a notebook as a "desktop replacement" will get only modest
benefit from the low-power aspects of Crusoe: battery life is relatively
unimportant in those situations.
mobile device users: you'll just have to see what becomes available. For
now, Palm-based devices, Pocket PC devices, and Internet-ready cell phones
are just fine.