Transmeta Corporation is a US-based corporation that licenses low power semiconductor IP. Transmeta originally produced very long instruction word code morphing (microcoded) microprocessors, with a focus on reducing power consumption in electronic devices. It was founded in 1995 by Bob Cmelik, Dave Ditzel , Colin Hunter, Ed Kelly, Doug Laird, Malcolm Wing, and Greg Zyner.
So far, it has produced two x86-compatible CPU architectures: Crusoe and Efficeon. These CPUs have appeared in subnotebooks, blade servers, tablet PCs, a personal cluster computer, and a silent desktop, where low power consumption and heat dissipation are of primary importance.
Revenue for the third quarter of 2007 was $44 million, which included $43 million of services revenue and $1 million of license revenue for royalty payments.
The company began as a stealth startup. Transmeta attempted to staff the company in secret, although speculation online was not uncommon. One source of speculation was the company's bare-bones webpage. On November 12, 1999, a cryptic comment in the HTML appeared :
Yes, there is a secret message, and this is it: Transmeta's policy has been to remain silent about its plans until it had something to demonstrate to the world. On January 19th, 2000, Transmeta is going to announce and demonstrate what Crusoe processors can do. Simultaneously, all of the details will go up on this Web site for everyone on the Internet to see. Crusoe will be cool hardware and software for mobile applications. Crusoe will be unconventional, which is why we wanted to let you know in advance to come look at the entire Web site in January, so that you can get the full story and have access to all of the real details as soon as they are available.The company was largely successful in hiding its ambitions until the official announcement. Over 2000 non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) were signed during the stealth period .
Throughout Transmeta's first few years, little was known about exactly what it would be offering. Its web site went online in mid-1997, and for approximately two and a half years displayed nothing but the text "This web page is not yet here." Information gradually came out of the company, suggesting of a very long instruction word-based (VLIW) design that translated x86 code into its own native code. As Intel's then-forthcoming "Merced" processor was also a VLIW design which could translate x86 code, speculation arose suggesting that Transmeta's product could have supercomputer-level processing power while actually being cheaper to manufacture than any offering by Intel, AMD or Cyrix.
In fact, Transmeta marketed their microprocessor technology as extraordinarily innovative and revolutionary in the low-power market segment. They had hoped to be both power and performance leaders in the x86 space. But initial reviews of the Crusoe indicated the performance fell significantly short of projections. Also, during Crusoe development Intel and AMD significantly ramped up speeds and began to address increasing concerns about power consumption. So Crusoe was rapidly cornered into a low-volume, small form factor (SFF), low-power segment of the market.
In response, Transmeta quickly re-designed its technology, and produced the Efficeon processor. The Efficeon claimed to have twice the performance of the original Crusoe CPU at the same frequency. But the performance was still weak relative to the competition, and the complexity of the chip had increased significantly. This greater size and power consumption may have diluted a key market advantage Transmeta's chips had previously enjoyed over the competition.
Transmeta has employed a number of industry luminaries such as Linus Torvalds and Dave D. Taylor. Initially, its purpose was kept secret, but partially because it had such talent amongst its staff, the industry was constantly abuzz with rumors in addition to 'conspiracy theories' resulting in excellent press relations (PR).
Torvalds left Transmeta in June 2003 to dedicate himself to the further development of the Linux kernel.
As an example of technology media hype, the company was once named as the Most important company in Silicon Valley in an Upside magazine editorial. Less well reported was that the company was never profitable while it was a chip vendor. In 2002, it had a loss of $114 million dollars, in 2003 a loss of $88 million, in 2004 a loss of $107 million.
As of January 2005 the company announced a strategic restructuring away from being a chip product company to an intellectual property company. That is, instead of selling chips, it will sell technology for use by other chip makers. In February 2005, there was wild speculation that AMD might buy Transmeta. In March 2005 Transmeta announced that it was laying off 68 people, leaving 208 employees. About half of the remaining employees were to work on propagating the LongRun2 power optimization technology within Sony products. Sony was reported to be a key licensee of this Transmeta technology.
The complaint charged that Intel had infringed and was infringing Transmeta's patents by making and selling a variety of microprocessor products, including at least Intel's Pentium III, Pentium 4, Pentium M, Core and Core 2 product line.
On October 24, 2007, Transmeta announced an agreement to settle its lawsuit against Intel Corporation. Intel agreed to pay $150 million upfront and $20 million per year for five years to Transmeta in addition to dropping its counter-claims against Transmeta. Transmeta also agreed to license several of its patents and assign a small portfolio of patents to Intel as part of the deal.
Transmeta trademarked the term "code-morphing.
Transmeta claims several technical benefits to this approach:
Prior to Crusoe release, rumors indicated Transmeta was relying on these benefits to develop a hybrid PowerPC and x86 processor. But Transmeta would initially concentrate solely on the extremely low-power x86 market.
The ability to quickly update products without a hardware respin was demonstrated in 2002 with an in-the-field upgrade (a download) to enhance CPU performance of the Crusoe based HP Compaq TC1000 tablet PC. It was used again in 2004 when NX bit and SSE3 support were added to the Efficeon product line without requiring hardware changes. In the field upgrades were rare in practice due to system hardware vendors not wanting to incur additional customer support costs or spend additional money on QA for the potential upgrades or bug fixes to shipped products they had already closed the revenue books on.
The Efficeon processor addressed many of Crusoe's shortcomings and showed roughly a 2x real-world improvement over Crusoe. Its die was considerably smaller than Pentium 4 and Pentium M, when compared in the same process technology. Efficeon's die fabricated in 90 nm is 68 mm², which is 60% of the Pentium 4 in 90 nm, at 112 mm², with both processors possessing a 1 MB L2 cache.
The notion of selling a product into a specific thermal envelope was typically not understood by the mass of reviewers, who tended to compare Efficeon to the gamut of x86 microprocessors, regardless of power consumption or application. One such example of this criticism suggests the performance still significantly lagged Intel's Pentium M (Banias) and AMD's Mobile Athlon XP.
For the 7 to 12 Watt thermal envelope in which Efficeon was designed to compete, there are unsubstantiated claims that its frequency far exceeded anything else in the market, at 1.5 GHz and 7 W, while the Centrino at the time could only operate within the 7 W envelope when its frequency was reduced to 1.1 GHz. This claim also admittedly considers only CPU frequency and ignores other significant factors in overall performance, such as core cycles per instruction (CPI), or memory performance and bandwidth, which have varying impact on different benchmarks and system configurations.
Unfortunately for Transmeta, other components within a laptop computer also consume power, such as the LCD display and hard disk drive. Since laptops with Transmeta CPUs share these components with regular laptops, the net increase in battery life was not large enough to make much difference to customers.